Stratford Week: Day 1 – Hamlet

How do we articulate these feelings?

Ok, back up… First off, we made it! We arrived in beautiful Stratford, Ontario last night shortly after 10:30pm. We weren’t sure we’d get here at all. After being trapped on the runway for three hours, we were fairly certain our trip was cursed. How wrong we were.

This marks the end of day one and we are never leaving. (Don’t tell the customs agent. He was brusque. He will hunt us down.)

This place is stunning. Right outside our window is the river Avon, full of geese and swans and cute little orange-footed ducks. The weather is sublime. The locals have said it’s a bit chilly for this time of year, but coming out of the hell that is South Florida, we’re in heaven. Our B&B is adorable, our host is a font of local knowledge (and delicious food), and our fellow guests possess kindred minds and are thoroughly engaging. (They’ve already scheduled a post-Shrew talk with us on Sunday. Apparently there’s a lot to be said.) The town itself is quaint, cultured, and full of historical charm. We love it. (PS in case you couldn’t tell from our choice of ‘we’, we are writing this post together today. With one of us being a comma nazi… Lookin’ at you,,,,, C.)

On to the meat of the matter: The Plays. Which are obviously the thing.

Day 1: Hamlet

We decided to start heavy and work our way to the frivolity of the comedies. Imagine our delight when Hamlet turned out to be funny. Sort of. Let us explain.

Given the weightiness of this particular play and the fact that we could write two dissertations (one apiece) on it, we’ve decided to use bullet points to mark our opinions as concisely as possible. Because brevity is the soul of wit.

1 – WE LOVED THIS PERFORMANCE. We have nothing to complain about. (With the exception of a wig change that was unnecessary and distracting.

2 – Everything was stunningly spectacular. Every actor. Every performance. Every decision of direction and staging and sound and light and everything. If pressed to choose a weakness, we would be forced to pick Gertrude, not because of a poor performance, but because the part itself is so overshadowed by such monoliths of theater. Even at her greatest, she must be overtaken. But we would choose no weakness at all if we could because we were undone by this performance. Our words melted into gibberish. It even got some tears.

3 – The technical design for this show was flawless. The use of stark lighting, set, and clothing along with the very purposeful placement of sound and music was masterfully done. This allowed the universal humanity of the performances to be front and center. All focus was on the actors, the emotion, the story. There were no Elizabethan cuffs or rampart facades to distract attention from the brilliant work the actors were living every minute of those three hours. (Three hours? Sure didn’t feel like it. That’s how good it was.)

4 – The modernization of the piece was highly successful in its interpretation of Shakespeare’s words. (Words. Words.) The emphases upon the language as we might speak it today was refreshing and accessible. The speeches were more real than we’ve ever seen and the connection the actors had to the dialogue was almost tangible. What was really remarkable was the understating of certain “staple” lines which were not given a whole fanfare in the fact that they are famed unto themselves. This really contributed to making the performance memorable.

5 – On to Hamlet, the Dane himself. wow. We have so many and so few words to express how incredible this performance truly was. It was a beautiful, multi-layered, real, emotional, funny, connected, tragic, controlled, and manic gift to the audience. Just wow. Hamlet’s performance brought tears to our eyes and somehow made us laugh out loud. From start to finish, Hamlet’s journey was fraught with emotion and movement. There is no hint of the stereotypical melancholy, prevaricating Dane. This Hamlet is a full body Hamlet. His physical actions as well as his emotional range moved the play forward with a speed and urgency that was electric. (Seriously, we were halfway through the “what a piece of work is man” speech before we even realized it.) He underplayed a lot of the “big Hamlet moments” and the result was something special. His delivery of the “to be or not to be” speech, for example, didn’t seem like the wishy-washy, suicide-contemplating Hamlet we are all used to seeing. Instead we watched a man contemplating the choices he had made and the consequences of those choices yet to be made. He was alternately strong and ridden with grief, madly in love and full of hate. He is in no way indecisive. It is clear that this Hamlet has made his decision and the only conflict lies in how to do away with Claudius. There is much more to be said, but we have to stop somewhere.

6 – The discovery of humor within this play was a great accomplishment for the director and the actors. Each character was so thoroughly developed as to have created their unique sense of humor, their own sense of the absurd. Everything from Laertes throwing a scarf around his neck with a touch of sass to Rosenkrantz’s sly gay joke to Hamlet’s crab walk equally contributed to a sense of lightness that is not normally found herein. Again, this only served to color the humanity of the piece, the truth in a story which hits us with emotion after emotion, all of which we have experienced ourselves. In bringing the humor, this light when all seems lost, we were given a story that explored the complexity of psyche as felt by each character. Though Shakespeare clearly wrote comedy into Hamlet (we’ll get to that in a moment), this production managed to pluck it from the barest implications.

7 – Speaking of Shakespeare’s intended comedy. Polonius. Here’s a character who was purposefully intended to be ridiculous and this production takes full liberty. It was awesome. The actor playing Polonius milked every single moment and piece of dialogue which he was a part of for all its worth and then some. His physicality, his wordplay, his singing voice (yes, he sang), and his intonations all led to a perfectly executed comic performance. One of our favorite moments was when the character lost track of what he was saying and was so convincing that for a moment we feared the actor had, in fact, slipped up on his lines. His frenetic delivery of Polonius was funny and heartwarming. When he was killed we cried.

8 – With Polonius gone what were we to do for humor? Well, it’s no coincidence that Shakespeare gives us the grave digger shortly after our main source of comedic relief is murdered. The grave digger in this production wins the prize for most Canadian actor we’ve ever seen. He was also a gifted comic actor, bringing some much needed laughter to the audience during the back half of the play. He was great. His comedy was delivered as deadpan as can be, taking advantage of the sarcastic literality that Shakespeare gave him. Bravo.

9 – And on the opposite side of the spectrum… there’s Ophelia. To begin with her performance was bland, deceitfully so, for the actress delivering Ophelia’s mad rants was a raw force of nature. Her use of her body and her voice were perfectly coordinated with the ups and downs of her erratic behavior. She was completely convincing when she was mad, but one of her best scenes was with Hamlet in the “get thee to a nunnery” sequence. The raw emotion that existed between she and Hamlet was entrancing, and in those moments, in the throws of broken love and hysteria, she was one of the few actors to truly match Hamlet’s state of heightened being.

10 – Speaking of the connection between Hamlet and Ophelia, this production did not hold back the depth of their relationship. Too often Hamlet and Ophelia are played as flirting courtiers with no sense of affection, a fading romance that Hamlet has no interest in pursuing. Not so at Stratford! If Hamlet and Ophelia’s love for one another was not obvious in the “nunnery” scene it is certainly made obvious at Ophelia’s funeral. The reaction to her death and the heart-wrenching revelation that he loved her, as screamed out by a distressed, detained Hamlet, is the firm pinnacle of his crumbling facade. More tears.

11 – The ghost scene. The actor playing the ghost (and Claudius, for that matter) was the true embodiment of a specter. His initial silence and stillness were unnerving, and when he spoke his voice was pitched to a deep, rumbling bass that could be felt in the very seats of the theatre. Cloaked and accompanied by a blinding bright lantern his presence was intense. The use of the ghost’s lantern to light the scene between he and Hamlet was ingenious as was the use of the set in creating literal obstacles for Hamlet as he chased after the old king to the sound of a beating drum (the racing of his heart). It was a perfect example of how the set, acting, and music came together so beautifully for the duration of the show.

That’s all for now. As we mentioned… each of us could literally write a thesis on this production and the nuances within. There was not a moment we would have changed and if we could we would watch the show nine more times. (Really. We discussed trading our Love’s Labour’s Lost tickets in order to see it again.) We could not be more happy with our first Stratford Festival experience and can’t wait to see what the rest of the weekend will hold for us. As for Hamlet… We plan to watch the Benedict Cumberbatch production when it hits theatres in October via National Theatre Live’s broadcast, and we can honestly say that we will be holding him to some absurdly high standards.

Tune in tomorrow for Love’s Labour’s Lost!

-A & C

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