Filled with Life, But Not Perfect
Never before has so much been seen…
By: Ian Alexander Martin, Editor and Publisher
How frequently do you get the opportunity to experience close to the entire script of Hamlet without the involvement of either Kenneth Branagh or an English Literature professor? And in Vancouver! There are a few bits missing here — most notably Fortinbras; his lines about Hamlet's body are given to Horatio — but other than that it's all pretty much here, for a 3½ hour ride that is very much worth taking.
For the one person in the Western Hemisphere who isn't aware of the story-line, it involves a King who was murdered by his brother. Shortly after the funeral, the killer marries the widow, and her son is right bummed-out by the whole thing and hates the fact that his Step-Father is now king instead of him. The dead King visits his son as a ghost, explains about the murderer's identity and extracts a promise to revenge the wrong-doing. Hamlet seems to goes right barmy at this point, verbally abuses and confuses all about him, dumps his long-time girlfriend, stages a play that re-enacts the murder and presents it to his father-in-law and mother as 'light entertainment', meets with him mother right after wards and paranoically accuses her of everything under the sun, as well as stabbing his Uncle through the arras (which is an exceedingly painful spot - I had a splinter there once). Our hero, if we can consider him one, is sent to England where he'll either get straightened out or fit in perfectly with the eccentrics living there (e.g.: Guy Adams), with a couple of his old college mates who are fascinated by coin spinning and high-level abstract philosophical questions. In the process of getting to the Sceptred Isle the two are killed (probably due to the annoying habits they have of debating everything semantically to death). Hamlet returns to find that Laertes, the brother of his babe, is pissed at him, due to her going off her nut and killing herself after being dumped and hearing that her 'ex' killed their Father. They have a duel using a couple of rapiers — one of which has a poisoned tip — with a glass of poisoned wine standing by if the rapier doesn't work out. The lads go at it, Hamlet gets nicked by the poisoned rapier, Laertes gets nicked by the poisoned rapier, Hamlet stabs the king with the poisoned rapier, Mom drinks the poisoned wine, and blood covers the floor of the castle waiting someone with fewer family issues to assume the throne. Curtain.
Oh, sorry - I guess that spoiled it by explaining that everyone's dead at the end. Sorry about that. I may as well go all-out then and also tell you that in the next James Bond film, 007 kills the evil villain and has sex with the girl.
As the titular character, Elias Toufexis shows a stunning dexterity with the text, much of which consists of bizarre statements about hawks and handsaws when it isn't being the best source of now-familiar phrases in the language. Tough stuff this, even before you start examining the layers of reality required from him in many of the scenes (the actor; the character; the character acting for the confusion of the people around him; the character acting for the confusion of the people around him realising they're on to him; the character showing that he's on to them being on to his acting for their confusion…). Opening night he kept his face down-cast too frequently, but was rock-solid with the dialogue for the famously huge rôle, and delivered most at a break-neck speed that was very much in keeping with the frantic need to accomplish his dead-father's orders. He takes pauses when they are earned, but occasionally injudiciously delivers text in short bursts, making it tough to keep-up with the intricacies of the text. As much as this is faithful to the character, I wonder how much it follows the intentions of William Shakespeare's text. This staccato delivery certainly had your faithful scholar struggling to keep up at times, and a few young folk behind his delightful wife and he were heard to admit that they didn't know what was going on, but it sure was fascinating to watch - which is certainly saying a fair bit.
One of two professional in this production, Thomas Jones presents Horatio — Hamlet's closest friend — as a fellow that the audience very much identifies with: regularly stunned at the events and decisions around him, he tries repeatedly to prevent this train-wreck of a family squabble from arriving at its inevitable destination. It is he who we meet upon coming into the theatre space, and he who also explains that what we are about to see and hear is a tragedy of epic proportions - in case you missed the mass of dead bodies scattered about him - and his face and voice clearly tells the story of trouble, vengeance and animosity about to transpire.
The other professional actor involved is Jason Emanuel as Claudius. This is very much a Claudius that makes sense for Gertrude to want; she has to keep her status in court certainly, but we can easily see how she was seduced by him before he killed her first husband with his smouldering good looks and eyes as deep as the ocean (or… so my wife informs me… ahem). Though his propensity to pinch his brows and display too much of his moral tortures through his facial expression rather distracts, he fully brings alive the wanton desire for power that drives Claudius to destroy anything in his path in order to acquire and maintain ownership of it. His fluent delivery of text is so natural you wonder if any of his text is written in verse, it is so conversational and un-studied.
Gavin Landsiedel, playing the triple-assignment of the Ghost of the former Hamlet, Player King, and Gravedigger provides portrayals of good, great, and adequate quality respectively. The usual approach to Hamlet's father is one I've never really liked: breathy, spooky delivery in almost monotone notes (Brian Blessed's in Mr. Branagh's film is possibly the best example of this). This ghostly father is very much one of a warrior charging his son with revenging his death, and far more believable as a result. Likewise, the Player King is usually approached as a prime role for someone too old to play Claudius anymore (as witness the use of Charlton Heston who seems so incredibly frail he's hardly seen moving during a shot), and Mr. Landsiedel provides a man we clearly see is an actor/director/producer of a travelling band of entertainers. His delivery of the monologue demanded by Hamlet is brilliantly just coarse enough to be recognisable as 'acting' and separates itself from the acting of the reality about him in the scene. His gravedigger, however, lacks a certain energy and playfulness I would have like to see by this point in the proceedings, as well as a grotty enthusiasm for his work. Granted, he has to differentiate from the Player King, and much of this spirit we have seen in him, so I'm not sure what the answer might be to this; as well, this is one of those 'famous rôles' someone always has the mis-fortune of playing that will please no-one in the audience fully due to its familiarity.
Megan Morrison as Gertrude is an incredible surprise: how someone this adept at bringing out the humanity and universality of a rôle usually played by a woman slightly less than twice her age and not be well-known to the community is beyond me. Her portrayal of Hamlet's mother solely justifies the price of the ticket, the length of the show, the time it took you to find a parking place, the cost of a beer and probably a couple you buy for her as well. Her mental torture at the hands of her son is palpable without being discomfiting in the process. Any Artistic Director in town looking for a 'new face' is well-advised to see this adroit actor immediately, and anyone interested in good, solid acting likewise.
Naomi Lazarus works her usual wardrobe magic, and seems to have been given enough of a budget to acquire the sufficient yards of luscious material and corseting to make everyone look as sexy and historically evocative as possible. Leather, velvet, laces, and cloaks are all combined to make one transported to to another time, barring the occasional leather car-coat and cowboy boots that pop-up occasionally. She keeps Gertrude in what can only be referred to as 'whore red' throughout the show, with the rest in blacks, whites and subdued earth-tones, as well as small blood-stains on the sleeves and chests of those destined to be seen dead at both ends of the show. Someone needs to get together a show with a four or five figure costume budget so we can see her design work properly presented.
Director Justin Clow has undertaken a show that is so audacious in its ambitions for both the company and the breadth of story-telling it contains that it is understandable that many might potentially look at the project as being disastrous, and more so when you realise it is being presented in what is essentially a glorified dance hall. There is nothing but good work to be seen here, however. Get down to the W.I.S.E. hall and get comfy.
RATING: Four stars out of a possible 5
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