Stage Door Review 2024

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Friday, April 5, 2024


choreographed by Guillaume Côté, music by John Gzowski, directed by Robert Lepage

Ex Machina, Côté Dance & Dvoretsky Productions, Elgin Theatre, Toronto

April 4-7, 2024

Hamlet: “The rest is silence” (Act 5, Scene 2)

Renowned dancer and choreographer Guillaume Côté and world-famous director Robert Lepage have teamed up to create a new ballet, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, now having its world premiere in Toronto. Those who come to the ballet with a deep knowledge of Shakespeare’s play will likely view the ballet as a superficial, if also occasionally spectacular, presentation of the most salient incidents in the plot with an unusually extrovert Hamlet. Those who come to the ballet as fans of ballet will find that the classic play has inspired a vivid dance piece enhanced with bold, imaginative stage direction and may care little whether the ballet reflects the play. The dancing of Côté’s own company Côté Dance is flawless and a joy in itself. Yet, Lepage and Côté’s creation does seem to miss the main point of Shakespeare’s play.

To those most familiar with Shakespeare’s play, the story of Shakespeare’s most cerebral hero might seem a strange choice for a ballet. Ballet is about action but Hamlet is about deciding whether to take action or not. Obviously, indecision based on religious or philosophical beliefs resists being translated successfully into outward action. Nevertheless, one of the paradoxes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that for a meditative play there is quite a lot of action. After all, the play does end with nine of its ten key characters murdered. How Shakespeare’s plot leads to this concatenation of deaths is fascinating in itself in depicting how Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father has set in motion a wave that will completely wipe out Denmark’s royal family making it ripe for conquest by Fortinbras of Norway. Fifteen ballets since 1788 have previously been based on Hamlet, the play by Shakespeare to inspire the most adaptations after Romeo and Juliet (20) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (17).

Côté and Lepage know the play well. Côté danced the title role in Kevin O’Day’s version for the National Ballet in 2012. Lepage also played the Danish prince and all the other roles in his solo show Elsinore in 1995.

The ballet opens with the scene of carnage at the end of the play’s final act, but with Horatio absent. Gradually, all the dead bodies roll away into the wings leaving Hamlet to right a toppled chair where he sits throughout the first scene. A curtain midway across the stage slides to reveal the ballet’s eight other characters celebrating at a long table. John Gzowski’s music takes a turn toward techno and the group all begin to dance. Some, like Ophelia, plead with Hamlet to dance, but he will not.

This scene suggests that the characters in Hamlet are caught in an endlessly repeating cycle. The ploy is not new. John Caird used this idea in his production of the play in 2000 where a galley of portraits came to life to enact the play and returned to their frames once the action was complete.

Many of Côté and Lepage’s additions to the play help to fill in the background of the characters. The scene after the opening banquet scene finds Hamlet alone in a room practicing his fencing. In Shakespeare’s play, we learn about Hamlet’s skill at fencing only near the end. Here, Côté and Lepage not only prepare us for the climactic duel between Hamlet and Laertes in Act 5, but also show how fencing has become an outlet for Hamlet’s anger at his situation. What begins as ordinary fencing moves quickly evolves into wild slashing at the air. Côté has Hamlet accidently cut himself and then deliberately place the blade across his bare left arm as if to cut himself. Then he has Hamlet place the blade across his left carotid artery. This is the closest that Côté comes to suggesting that Hamlet has suicidal thoughts. But these thoughts are only momentary.

Côté and Lepage also provide an extended scene between Ophelia and Laertes before he takes his leave. Here Côté shows the two playing rough-and-tumble games as brother and sister. Laertes then proceeds to show Ophelia a number of breakdancing moves as if trying to impress her. When he goes to hug her on her bed, it seems that his love for Ophelia goes beyond the merely brotherly. While not necessary, Laertes’ crypto-incestuous actions set up a parallel between him and Hamlet and help explain the violent reaction Laertes has to Ophelia’s death.

A third additional scene is a pas de deux between Gertrude and Claudius. In the play we know virtually nothing about Gertrude and her motivation in marrying Claudius so soon after Old Hamlet’s death. In this added scene Côté shows Claudius attempting to do work at a desk. Gertrude enters and tries to pry Claudius away from his work. He pushes her away but she literally clings to him until, in the course of trying to remove her, his actions turn into conventional ballet lifts. What the scene reveals, not in Shakespeare, is that Gertrude almost pathologically needs male attention for self-validation. This explains her hasty remarriage but still leaves unknown whether she does or does not know whether Claudius murdered her husband.

In many of the ballet’s versions of scenes in Shakespeare’s play, spectacle does make up for the absence of words. In this production Lepage uses distinctly low-tech means of creating striking images and, even though Lepage is famed for his use of new technology in theatre, his low-tech methods generally reinforce the meaning of an action much more successfully. A prime example is the staging of Hamlet’s meeting with the Ghost of his father. Here the Ghost has not been walking the ramparts as in Shakespeare but has been lying on a bier in a shroud. Eerily the corpse sits up under the shroud and finally stands. Lit from behind, his body creates a gigantic shadow that reflects how overwhelmed Hamlet is by the sight. The Ghost’s explanation of how he died is portrayed as a play of huge shadows on the shroud.

Lepage also uses shadows to portray Claudius’ guilt. In the scene following the staging of “The Mousetrap”, (equivalent to Claudius’ speech “O, my offense is rank” in Act 3), Lepage has Claudius crouch behind one of the footlights which then casts a huge shadow on the front curtain and proceeds to magnify every motion he makes.

For the staging of the play-within-a-play “The Mousetrap” itself, Lepage and Côté have done away with the travelling players and instead has Hamlet and Horatio perform the play. This really becomes just an extension of the dumbshow that already exists in Shakespeare. Côté makes this chorographically interesting by having Hamlet and Horatio play Old Hamlet and Gertrude in full head masks with their backs turned toward the audience on stage. Not only does this highlight the ingenuity of Côté’s choreography but is also reinforces the perversity of Claudius’ murder of Old Hamlet.

In Shakespeare we hear that Ophelia has gone mad, our only evidence on stage being her singing and flower-giving scene. We also only hear that she has committed suicide. In the ballet Lepage and Côté show us both scenes. In the first, we see Ophelia stand in front of three mirrors. Côté gives her erratic hand movements as she undoes her hair. Suddenly, hands that are not reflections of Ophelia’s hands begins making grasping motions through the spaces between the mirrors. Finally, all the characters, living and dead, emerge from between these gaps and form a dance that is a parody of the dance at the banquet that opened the show. It is not hard to see the point that Ophelia is being overwhelmed by all the events she has witnessed.

For her suicide, Lepage and Côté have the odd idea that Ophelia takes off her shift to reveal a swimsuit underneath before she takes a plunge in the stage-high vertical sheet of blue fabric hanging behind her. As the creators have staged it, Ophelia’s suicide appears more like an accident than a deliberate choice. Ophelia flings herself several times into the blue cloth where dancers behind catch her and pose her in various lifts. At one point the blue cloth looks likely to envelop her, which would have been an aesthetically ideal conclusion. Unfortunately, Lepage and Côté decide to have Ophelia lie of the stage floor and have the blue sheet fall to cover her while performers ripple the sheet to create waves – a needlessly conventional ending.

Before the duel between Laertes and Hamlet, Lepage and Côté have the great idea of having Claudius dip the tip of Laertes’ foil in the same botte of poison used to kill Hamlet’s father. For the duel itself, streamers have been added to the tips of both foils – red for Laertes, white for Hamlet. Nominally his helps us determine who is using the poisoned foil when. In fact, it turns the deadly battle into a pretty display of ribbon twirling as in rhythmic gymnastics with the foils themselves seldom making contact.

The set designed by Lepage is composed of three rectangular wooden forms that sometimes are used as tabletops and sometimes and platforms. While set changes occur Côté stages dance pieces in front of the front curtain, and he proves marvellously adept at choreographing action for as many as four performers in such a long, narrow space. Sets of curtains behind the front curtain are used for defining spaces and surprise reveals. Michael Gianfrancesco and Monika Onoszko’s costumes mingle old (e.g., jerkins and leggings) with new (e.g., hoodies and rucksacks). The gowns for Ophelia and Gertrude have been designed to flow and fall in place beautifully.

The one annoying feature is the use of surtitles, which, this being a ballet are totally unnecessary. When Hamlet’s phrase “Words, words, words” appears is it meant to get a laugh? When Hamlet’s last words appear, “The rest is silence”, is that meant to get a laugh since all the dance happens in silence. When we see a characters, the screen will state “Enter Queen” or suchlike. Even more annoying is that the blackletter type use comes with the sound effects of a typewriter. How does that suit either the period of the play or the typeface?

John Gzowski’s music is not always pleasant. He uses a fuzzy electric guitar phrase as Hamlet’s signature sound and its aggressive noise is meant to contrast with the rest of the score. Otherwise, his music ranges from imitation Renaissance and Baroque dance music to 20th-century dissonance. Like the music Côté’s choreography encompasses everything from classical ballet to modern dance to acrobatics and breakdancing. He cleverly designs a number of unusual pas de deux, both male-female and male-male, most notably for Hamlet and Ophelia during the “Nunnery Scene” when Hamlet’s lifts become confining rather than exalting for Ophelia and his under-arm turns become brutal rather than lovely.

Côté, who also plays Hamlet, leaps, lifts and turns in the air with total effortlessness. In his interpretation, Hamlet never does put on an “antic disposition”. He is always in control and is motivated by anger, not doubt. He seems to mock Yorick’s skull than feel sadness over it. While this allows Côté always to appear noble and dashing, it means that the complexity that makes Hamlet one of the great figures of world literature is completely lost.

Natasha Poon Woo is also a very different type of Horatio. Not only is Horatio played by a woman but Côté has made the character very much in the same mould as Hamlet and not as Hamlet’s rational foil as in Shakespeare. Poon Woo displays a quickness and liveliness that Côté’s Hamlet does not have, but these traits go contrary to Shakespeare’s Horatio who is thoughtful rather than rash. The ballet has cut so much from Shakespeare’s play it really should end with the death of Hamlet. Unfortunately, Côté has given Horatio a bizarre dance of grief full of sudden hand motions whose meaning is unknown. Anyone familiar with the play will know that such a demonstrative grief in no way becomes the reflective character that Horatio is meant to be.

As Gertrude and Claudius, Greta Hodgkinson and Robert Glumbek give the most fully realized performances of the evening. Hodgkinson is playful and seductive when with Claudius but stiff and spinning on demi-pointe when confronted by Hamlet. Glumbek through changes of posture and movement conveys the contrast within Claudius between outward confidence and authority and inward fear and guilt.

Côté has decided that Polonius is a figure of ridicule. His spinning and tiptoeing along the front curtain in order to spy out the heavy breathing he hears makes him look a fool. His symbolic prop is his staff which he attempts to wield literally to block Ophelia’s freedom of movement. Yet, Hamlet, when he wishes, pulls it from him and plays with it as a toy. 70-year-old Bernard Meney gives a fine account of the role as Côté as interpreted it, but we do wonder why Ophelia should go mad after the death of someone who has been so unkind to her.

Carleen Zouboules is an excellent Ophelia. She plays the character as Côté has imagined it – as a vital young woman, not as a fragile blossom we so often see. In the “Nunnery” scene her whole body reflects Ophelia’s discomfort and fear as Hamlet’s grips during lifts become ever more painful. Especially notable is her performance as the dead Ophelia. Lifts usually depend on the rigidity of the person being lifted. Here Zouboules gives the impression both of Ophelia being a lifeless body while actually providing enough rigidity to permit the manhandling she receives from both Hamlet and Laertes as they struggle over who loves her more.

Lukas Malkowski is a stunning Laertes who seamlessly blends breakdancing with ballet. He does drops, power moves and freezes with ease. Most fascinating is how Côté has Laertes react to Ophelia’s death. He has Laertes do most of the same moves that the character did in his first scene with Ophelia, but this time he has Malkowski perform them in slow motion. Before seeing this, I never would have thought of breakdancing as having emotional power, but Malkowski does a slow shoulder freeze, his head crammed askew under his body’s weight, that really does succeed in conveying Laertes’ grief.

Connor Mitton and Willem Sadler, playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, are costumed as twin modern schoolboys with hoodies, only furthering the joke of their interchangeability. They are characterized by pas de chat and complex footwork and kicks that the two comically perform perfectly in synch. Rather like Tom Stoppard’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in his 1966 play, Côté has Mitton play Rosencrantz as slightly dimmer than Guildenstern. In terms of dance, Mitton’s Guildenstern is always later to catch on to the hints that Sadler’s Guildenstern gives. The duo’s precision and comic timing helps lift us out of the general gloom of the story.

The legions of fans of Lepage and Côté will naturally want to see their take on one of the greatest plays ever written. They will find a ballet where Côté’s choreography well characterizes all the main figures except, strangely enough, that of the Hamlet himself. In his Director’s Note, Lepage says of Shakespeare’s play, “When we strip away the words, its skeleton still remains and its meaning doesn’t disappear”. The ballet Lepage and Côté have created proves that this is not true. The play is famed among Shakespeare’s works for its soliloquies where Hamlet reflects on events he has witnessed, yet, except for Hamlet’s fencing practice in the ballet, Lepage and Côté provide no equivalents to these passages. In fact, they have completely altered the nature of the main character from a reflective figure whose thought inhibits his action to an active figure who is remarkably non-contemplative. This fully misrepresents the main character and subsequently what the story is about. Though many have attempted it before, it may be that trying to portray a story about thought and inaction in a medium that is all about physical movement and action is ultimately an impossible task.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Guillaume Côté as Hamlet, © 2023 Sasha Onyshchenko; Carleen Zouboules as Ophelia and Guillaume Côté as Hamlet, © 2023 Sasha Onyshchenko; Greta Hodgkinson as Gertrude and Luka Malkowski as Young Claudius, © 2023 François Latulippe; Guillaume Côté as Hamlet playing Old Hamlet with ensemble, © 2023 Stéphane Bourgeois; Carleen Zouboules as Ophelia (centre front) with Luka Malkowski as Laertes, , Robert Glumbek as Claudius, Bernard Meney and Greta Hodgkinson as Gertrude, © 2023 Stéphane Bourgeois; Guillaume Côté as Hamlet, © 2023 Matt Barnes; Carleen Zouboules as Ophelia and Luka Malkowski as Laertes © 2023 Sasha Onyshchenko.

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