What a piece of work is Rand! Photo by Tim Fennell.
Let’s not lie, maybe some of us went to see that four-hour, unabridged Kenneth Branagh version of Hamlet back when we were in grade six, then wore out our VHS copies of the perhaps over-the-top film, to-be-or-not-to-be-ing along with Ken. Maybe we’ve also seen rather a lot of different Hamlets on stage, in film, and on Shakespeare Monologue Day in drama class. For all these maybes, we still were unprepared for Necessary Angel’s Hamlet Project (it opened last week at Harbourfront Centre as part of World Stage), which is truly unlike any other Hamlet we’ve ever seen. Significantly shorter than Mr. Branagh’s version, this sexy, streamlined version of the quintessential tragedy clocks in at about two hours, cutting speeches, combining and re-ordering scenes, and trimming the cast down to a bare-essentials nine (this requires the merger of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into “Guildencrantz,” one of the productions few jokes). Staged in-the-round at the Enwave Theatre, the actors perform in modern dress (Hamlet wears a Sex Pistols t-shirt), and the entire show is set within a single space: a dining room littered with beer cans and those red plastic cups, giving the impression of yesterday’s party that no one has yet bothered to clean up. The tone is angry, violent, and often very sexual, including one of the most shocking and effective examples of onstage nudity we’ve ever seen.
Scottish director Graham McLaren goes for a “European” approach to the play (in theatre-speak, “European” usually means physical and with little reverence to the text). And most of the time, it works very well indeed. Fencing duels get substituted for tug-of-war knife fights, and the only people in any kind of ornate costume are the Player King and Queen, who are made up with an ostentatiously drag aesthetic that seems to be poking fun at the more Branagh-esque productions of the show. We see new takes on characters that breathe surprising life into the almost too familiar roles. Gord Rand’s Hamlet is a douchey slacker with a thoroughly modern melancholy. His might not be the most likable take we’ve seen on the Danish prince, but it’s a damn good one, and when he turns to the audience for one of his soliloquies, you can hear a pin drop. Also powerful is Laura de Carteret’s Gertrude (who we first see dressed as Marilyn Monroe, engaged in raucous foreplay with Benedict Campbell’s Claudius, who happens to be wearing a gorilla mask—see what we meant about irreverent to the text?). She’s a younger, savvier Gertrude than we often see portrayed, making the strong choice of intentionally drinking the poison at the play’s climax in a too-late attempt to save her son. Stranger is Eric Peterson’s Polonius. Now, Peterson is obviously a national treasure, and his severe, militaristic Polonius is expertly performed, but he’s also alarmingly creepy and unpleasant for a character who usually provides much of the play’s comic relief. We didn’t count a single time when Polonius provided a laugh in this production. It’s different, and it mostly works, but this is a heavy show, and those jokes were there for a reason.
Staging is not strict, and the actors have been given free range to do what they want, when they want to, meaning that each performance of Hamlet Project is going to be slightly different. This can be messy, but it can also be terribly exciting. If you’re bored of the Bard, or tired of stuffy Shakespeare productions, this show is the perfect antidote.
Hamlet Project runs until November 29.