As I watched Adrienne Gould’s Ophelia stagger and rail across the stage in Antoni Cimolino’s production of Hamlet, I thought that something must truly be rotten in the state of Denmark.
That’s not a knock on this excellent production by any means. But Shakespeare’s Danes certainly have a proclivity for madness and murder. Maybe there’s something in Elsinore’s water?
You might answer, “This is Hamlet! You’re just noticing all the death and crazy now?” Yet there’s something about Cimolino’s production that brings the frailty of the human mind and the briefness of life eerily close to the surface. As the director states in the program, “In Hamlet, as in our own lives, death is never far away.”
The most strikingly macabre aspect of the production is the set itself. The stage is comprised of black marble monoliths of varying size that may at first remind you of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, once the light hits them, you realize the better comparison would be that of polished granite tombstones, surrounding the characters of the play like dark ghosts of Christmases yet to be. Using direct lightning, spotlights, and lanterns with pinpoint irises, these shapes are multiplied and enlarged, haunting the backdrop with towering black shadows.
Colour use appears assigned by character. Our titular prince, played here by Jonathan Goad, wears black for the play’s entirety. He’s juxtaposed with white-clad Ophelia, brown Horatio (Tim Campbell), light blue Laertes (Mike Shara), Gertrude (Seana McKenna) in violent shades of blue and red, and his murderous uncle Claudius (Geraint Wyn Davies) who wears varying combinations of black and white.
However, the morgue sterility of the set fades as the first half plays out. By the time the acting troupe arrives, the stage is bathed in soft orange light, the players themselves clad in a garish Bohemian rainbow, the marble monoliths similarly draped.
Beneath, though, the darkness lingers.
The first half of the show is also where Cimolino allows his actors, some of the Festival’s biggest comedic stars, to play for laughs. Riotous Tom Rooney had the audience howling as an especially silly Polonius. Mike Shara’s Laertes swaggers like a charming frat boy, while the Festival’s reigning king of swagger, Wyn Davies, played the duplicitous Claudius as a boisterous and conniving boor. The always funny Sanjay Talwar and Steve Ross were along for the ride as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively, although, more often than not, the two play straight men to Goad.
Following the intermission, the story once again returns to the stark and angular metrics of the play’s beginning, delivering perhaps the most striking visual of the production in a ready-to-pounce Hamlet holding a rifle to the back of the head of a praying Claudius, all at right-angles and illuminated by a glowing white cross.
The narrative darkens quickly in the second half, and it’s largely the two women who introduce the play’s gravitas, smothering the joviality of the first half.
McKenna’s Gertrude exudes nothing but concern and confusion for the seemingly mad Hamlet, much like Campbell’s Horatio. Both characters watch Hamlet in the same manner one may watch a drunken best man speech – wanting to find a peaceable conclusion but unable to comprehend, interject, or offer assistance.
Gould’s performance brought to mind that episode of the Simpsons that riffed on Hamlet, wherein Lisa Simpson’s Ophelia declares “no one out-crazies Ophelia!” before promptly drowning herself.
Indeed, Gould “out-crazies” Hamlet, and while it may be considered over the top – she at one point dry-humps a shocked Claudius – it is nonetheless well-played, primitive, guttural, and sad, serving as a major catalyst that sends the story on a downward spiral towards oblivion. It will likely stand as one of this season’s most memorable, and controversial, performances.
And what of our titular prince? Goad brings his conversational Shakespeare to the role, giving Hamlet’s many soliloquies new depth and understanding to modern audiences. His feigned madness, frantically spat in breakneck patter, will remind viewers of a young Robin Williams both audibly and visually; and really, with the strong melding of both comedy and tragedy in this production, is there any better contemporary comedic/tragic figure to emulate than the late Williams?
Goad is the play’s ballast, livening up scenes with the dead-serious Gertrude and Horatio, while deflating scenes before Polonius can fully steal them. He is a likeable Hamlet who disappoints us when he’s thoughtless, rash, or violent towards the women in his life. He is flawed and cynical, yet giddy in the face of inevitable doom. A fine performance by a gifted actor.
While Cimolino’s Hamlet may lack the thunderous import of his production of King Lear last season, it is nonetheless a thoughtful interpretation that lifts audience with just enough comedy to make the drop into tragedy all the more bitter. It is hyper-stylized, packed with excellent performances, and will, it is hoped, inspire a few more young people to look to the oh-so-quotable Bard for inspiration.