Stage Door Review

Hamlet

Saturday, June 11, 2022

✭✭

by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Pasyk

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

June 2-October 28, 2022

Hamlet: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth” (Act 2, Scene 2)

It is great to see live theatre indoors again especially in the Festival Theatre in Stratford. The Festival’s tenth production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will be remembered most for the performance of Amaka Umeh, the first woman and the first Black actor to play the Danish prince at the Festival. This is a great achievement, but the experience would be even greater if the production were not extremely uneven in direction, acting and design.

Director Peter Pasyk has set the action in an alternative present-day Denmark complete with omnipresent smartphones. This Denmark has become a surveillance state. When you enter the auditorium a guard (Josue Laboucane), hand to his earpiece, peers out as he stands watch over the corpse of Old Hamlet, young Hamlet’s father, who lies in state in a glass coffin. For no good reason, once the other guards have left, this guard decides to see what will happen if he touches the coffin. It sets off alarms and swinging spotlights and makes us wonder how the guard could have been so stupid.

In fact, if Denmark is now a security state, the security detail proves to be an unusually ineffective bunch. After Hamlet is declared mad, no one is around to prevent him from killing Polonius and trying to kill the King. Even though Ophelia, when declared mad, is fitted with an ankle monitor, that doesn’t prevent anyone from saving her from drowning. No guards are present during the fencing match at the end, except a do-nothing Reynaldo, which results in four deaths including the King and Queen. The moral is that the idea of portraying Denmark as a surveillance state might sound good for a moment but just a survey of the plot shows that the idea doesn’t work.

In terms of design the production has differing views of what “contemporary” is. While the use of smartphones and high-end trainers for Laertes indicate the present, set designer Patrick Lavender has the royals furnish their castle with Danish Modern, a style meant for the masses that was popular in the 1960s. Similarly, designer Michelle Bohn’s costumes, except for the trainers, would not be out of place in the 1960s and she dresses the travelling players as if they were hippies.

Little is gained through the use of smartphones except laughter from the audience when Hamlet takes selfies or when Claudius gets a ping to tell him a text has arrived. The worst use is when Claudius and Polonius feel they need to give Ophelia a wire for her chat with Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1. First, the setup is far too elaborate. Second, hiding a mic means Hamlet has nothing to notice, such as two men behind a curtain, to make him realize he’s being spied on and no reason to alter his tone to Ophelia from loving to loathing once he sees that she is complicit in spying on him.

In order for Pasyk to make Shakespeare’s play fit into a three-hour running time, he has had to cut large swaths of the text. He, therefore has cut the character of Fortinbras (and with him  Voltimand and Cornelius). This means that at the end when Hamlet dies, there is no known heir to the throne and no one to take over the country as Fortinbras would do. It also means that Horatio final lines are cut in which he tells Fortinbras plainly that what has happened are “purposes mistook / Fall’n on the inventors’ heads”.

No Fortinbras also means that Hamlet’s important soliloquy comparing himself to the Norwegian prince, “How all occasions do inform against me” is cut. Also cut is Hamlet’s speech “Nay, do not think I flatter” which includes the central line “Give me that man / That is not passion's slave”. There is no Osric, his place and a handful of lines being taken by Reynaldo. In the original text Reynaldo is a man in Polonius’ employ who is sent to spy on Laertes while Laertes is in France. Pasyk has that scene, but since Reynaldo is also a palace guard, we see Reynaldo about the castle in Denmark even when he’s supposed to be in France.

The cut to Hamlet’s speeches which is perhaps the cruelest is the omission of Hamlet’s reflection “What a piece of work is a man!”, Hamlet’s key pronouncement on humankind’s reality – at once a creature of true greatness and at the same time nothing but dust. In general Pasyk cuts anything that does not directly have to do with the plot as he sees it, which means that much of Horatio’s and Claudius’ lines are also binned.

Pasyk alters the play’s ending in a most unfortunate way by having Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the court, spy the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in the distance and repeat the play’s first line, “Who’s there?” There’s no clear answer as to what this means. Does this show that the Ghost really is a demon as Hamlet supposed and has come to view the carnage he has wrought? Or is it just a cheap way to suggest that Hamlet’s tragedy is cyclical even though it’s quite definitely linear? There is no one left to carry on a second cycle. And why does the Ghost appear to the nobody that is Horatio instead of to Hamlet before Hamlet dies?

Loyal Stratford Festival-goers will have first seen Amaka Umeh as Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, another play directed by Pasyk. Umeh may be the first Black female Hamlet at Stratford but others have preceded her in the role elsewhere –  Zainab Jah at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia in 2015 and Cush Jumbo at the Young Vic in London in 2021. Like Jah and Jumbo, Umeh plays Hamlet as a young male with pronouns he/him unchanged.

Unlike so many young actors of her generation, even those in this production, Umeh has the great advantage of speaking Shakespeare’s verse clearly and with understanding. Umeh is playing this enormous role far earlier in her career than either Jah or Jumbo, so it is not surprising that Umeh’s performance leaves room for improvement. Her most noticeable flaw, quite evident in Dream last year, is the tendency to illustrate everything she says through gestures. She does restrain herself during the first half hour of the performance but gradually the gestures creep in and finally take over.

This is most obvious when her Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Norman Yeung and Ijeoma Emesowum). After the three complete a complicated dap greeting, the visitors ask Hamlet how he is, to which Hamlet replies, “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. After such a vigorously comic greeting, the sudden snap-back to depression makes no sense.

Even worse occurs when Hamlet gives his advice to the players: “Nor do not saw the air / too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently”, which Umeh illustrates by sawing the air in a much more subdued way than she has been doing for the majority of the play. This flaw is not just Umeh’s but also Pasyk’s who ought to be able to see the contradiction between his Hamlet’s words and actions and insure that the actions reflect the words.

The other flaw Umeh evinces is in conveying emotions sequentially but not simultaneously. Hamlet, alone in the court is still in mourning for his father; he has seen a ghost (or is it a demon?) in his father’s form; he discovers that his friends Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have all be used by his father to spy on him; he constantly berates himself for not taking action, for not avenging his father’s death. All this should mean that Hamlet is severely depressed and must find a way out of this depression to accomplish the task of revenge. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is thus always experiencing depression plus one or more emotions simultaneously.

Only when a line specifically refers to depression does Umeh act depressed. The emotional throughline she takes to guide her through the play is anger. The difficulty with this choice is that it makes her Hamlet no different than the excitable, unthinking Laertes, with whom Shakespeare contrasts dispirited, intellectual Hamlet. A perpetually angry Hamlet presents only one side of one of the most multifaceted characters in drama, and unchanging anger becomes tiring long before the three hours are finished.

Yet, despite these flaws, which are also flaws in direction, Umeh exudes energy and intensity like no one else on stage. As Claudius, Graham Abbey, in contrast exudes nothing. In a strange performance Abbey remains totally bland. Words of anger issue from his expressionless face. The only time Abbey seems to liven up is in the chapel scene (Act 3, Scene 3) which Pasyk has has re-imagined not as a soliloquy but as an outright confession by Claudius to Polonius. There Abbey finds vigour in Claudius’ guilt which should have been implied from the first. Otherwise, Abbey makes even Claudius’ death uninteresting.

As a result, Maev Beaty has to do the acting for both Gertrude and Claudius. This makes her Gertrude a far stronger character than is usually the case. In the closet scene, Beaty’s Gertrude is clearly shaken by the confrontation with Hamlet. To reinforce this effect, Pasyk unnecessarily reassigns lines from the play so that it is Gertrude, not Horatio, who is informed of how Hamlet escaped death on his trip to England. With this proof that Claudius is indeed a villain, Gertrude’s drinking the poisoned chalice now appears, not like a foolish act but rather a deliberate choice. When Claudius tells Gertrude not to drink, Beaty makes Gertrude’s reply, “I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me” absolutely chilling as Gertrude’s last words before committing suicide.

Michael Spencer-Davis is an excellent Polonius and lets the character’s own absurdities speak for themselves without giving them an extra nudge. As a result Spencer-Davis makes Polonius’ famous speech of advice to Laertes sound completely fresh and off-the-cuff.

In contrast Andrea Rankin and Austin Eckert, who play Polonius’ children, Ophelia and Laertes, are ciphers. Both mumble Shakespeare’s verse as if it were contemporary prose. Rankin must be the first Ophelia I’ve seen who makes no distinction between Ophelia when she is sane and when she is mad. Eckert’s Laertes only comes to life once Laertes returns from France. He signals anger by shouting, but he performs the duelling scene well and his reconciliation with Hamlet is his best moment in the play.

Norman Yeung as Rosencrantz and Ijeoma Emesowum as Guildenstern are a likeable pair. Casting them as male and female with clothing traditionally linked to those genders means that the joke of Claudius’ mistaking them falls flat. The two are especially good when Hamlet keeps pressing them about whether they were sent for (to spy on him). With each repetition of the question the two give away their guilt before they say a word.

The main character who has been significantly demoted in Pasyk’s production is Horatio. So many of his lines have been cut and so many of his scenes with Hamlet that Pasyk’s version of Horatio does not come across as the only person Hamlet can trust but as just another courtier like Marcellus (Tyrone Savage) or Barnardo (Kevin Kruchkywich). Of Horatio in Shakespeare’s text, Hamlet says, “Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core”. This signals how much Hamlet values Horatio as a rock to steady him. Hamlet’s dying in Horatio’s arms and Horatio’s final speech thus lose all the emotion they should have. One can only think how unfair this is to Jakob Ehman, who has to do the best with the few scraps he is given.

Many will mistake Pasyk’s rapid pacing for excitement and Umeh’s vehement delivery as insight. What both the production and Umeh’s performance lack is subtlety. Neither Pasyk nor Umeh has made Hamlet’s central dilemma clear – action versus contemplation – nor the torture this dilemma causes Hamlet. By concentrating only on plot rather than on Hamlet’s many reflections, Pasyk gives us something like the graphic novel version of the play rather than Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Those looking for new insights into the play or into the character will have to wait for the next production to roll around.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Amaka Umeh as Hamlet; Amaka Umeh as Hamle, Jakob Ehman as Horatio and Matthew Kabwe as the Ghost. © 2022 David Hou.

For tickets visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.