National Ballet of Canada Presents Hamlet
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National Ballet of Canada Presents Hamlet

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, choreographer Kevin O'Day stages Hamlet without all the "words, words, words."

Piotr Stanczyk in Hamlet's solo, at the beginning The National Ballet of Canada's Hamlet.

Approximately 30 years old and faced with questions of identity, suicide, and murder, Prince Hamlet of Denmark goes through a profound midlife crisis—perhaps the most profound in the English dramatic canon.

Hamlet is assigned the task of killing his usurping uncle (and stepfather), Claudius, in revenge for the death of his father. Yet, the prince, despite his contempt for Claudius, is daunted by the enormity of the undertaking. And, like a philosophy major vacillating between graduate school and the real world, he demurs.

Hamlet is undoubtedly the most enigmatic of Shakespeare’s characters. Alternately deliberate and rash, simultaneously serious and playful, Hamlet only reveals his true feelings through his lengthy soliloquies and pregnant replies. But even in the absence of his “wild and whirling words,” the prince is not inscrutable, as the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Hamlet proves.

Nearly every aspect of choreographer Kevin O’Day’s two-act interpretation of the Bard’s masterpiece is rich with symbolic value. The costumes, the backdrop designs, and, most importantly, the choreography all have clear reasons for being, even as the ceaselessly cogitating Hamlet searches for his.

The performance opens in silence as Hamlet—played by Guillaume Côté when we attended, though there are actually three different casts that will play on alternating days until the show closes on the June 10 (another cast is pictured here)—sits sullenly on the stage, illuminated by a single spotlight. He begins to move in violent spurts scarcely resembling a dance. The tears in Hamlet’s black clothing wordlessly indicate that he has been mourning his father’s death for some time. Hamlet’s mental distress is evident as, on his knees, he faces his chest toward the firmament in appeal to the Fates, only to collapse into a fetal pose as he cowers from them.

Accompanied by jarring and dramatic music, the prince recalls the details of his father’s murder, which plays out behind the translucent backdrop. The creation of set and costume designer Tatyana van Walsum, the backdrop consists of a blown-up microscopic image of bone, rendered in white and set on a greenish background. The knotted mess of human architecture symbolizes the familial entanglement in which Hamlet is trapped, as well as the prince’s preoccupation with death.

Gertrude (Lise-Marie Jourdain) dances with the newly crowned King Claudius (First Soloist Keiichi Hirano) during The National Ballet of Canada's final rehearsal of Hamlet on May 31, the day before the North American premiere.

Meanwhile, at the Danish court, Claudius (Jirí Jelinek) and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Stephanie Hutchison), dance to jazzy, brass-heavy music driven by what can only be described as a pulsing jungle beat. The court itself is done up in orange and auburn (as are the courtesans), perfectly complementing the fiery sexual passion evident between the queen and the new king.

Their confident and carnal dance is contrasted in the following scene by Hamlet and his love, Ophelia (Heather Ogden). Ophelia has been warned by her father, Polonius (Jonathan Renna), not to consort with Hamlet, as the prince’s noble stature demands that he eventually find love elsewhere. Yet she is unable to pull herself away from him. The lovers’ dance is slow but desperate, sad but passionate. The darkened set and beautifully dissonant music perfectly frame the scene. Here again, van Walsum’s clever costume designs successfully elucidate the characters who wear them. Ophelia’s flowered dress foreshadows her madness, while Polonius, who in Shakespeare’s original play speaks bombastically and takes himself too seriously, looks uptight and slightly ridiculous in what appears to be a Nehru jacket.

O’Day is consistently able to define Hamlet’s relationships with other characters through dance, as seen, for example, in the prince’s interactions with Polonius. In Shakespeare’s original, Hamlet feigns madness, which largely excuses the mordant observations he directs at other characters. In one famous scene, Polonius (a Danish privy councillor) asks of Hamlet, “Do you know me, my lord?” to which Hamlet replies, “You’re a fishmonger.” Hamlet intends to hurt Polonius’ sizable ego, but Polonius simply chalks the reply up to madness, and lets it slide. In O’Day’s conception, of course, Hamlet and Polonius dance rather than converse, but the effect is the same: Hamlet leads Polonius in their brief dance together, occasionally letting go to slap him across the face.

One of the production’s most memorable scenes depicts Ophelia’s descent into madness. The only character to vocalize, Ophelia sings a wordless melody in a quavering voice as flower petals fall around her, alluding to a scene in the original play in which Ophelia hands out flowers to several characters while singing. Throughout the solo that follows, Ophelia appears to be pulled in different directions, but with a clear sense of confinement. She is then seen on her back, helplessly moving her legs and arms like an overturned beetle, making a cruel mockery of her name, which comes from the Greek for “helper.” The backdrop appears to ripple, and Ophelia drowns.

Hamlet (Principal Dancer Piotr Stanczyk, front) is joined by Horatio (Brendan Saye, corps de ballet, bottom) and two others (Ryan Booth, middle, and Nan Wang, top) during the Hamlet dress rehearsal at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, June 31.

Composer John King’s jazz-tinged score is at times dissonant, but never distractingly so, and is in this way well-suited to the often grisly and discordant scenes it accompanies. Recorded sounds are frequently used in conjunction with the traditional live orchestra to enhance the sonic atmosphere–and even the interpretive possibilities–of the scenes in which they appear. In the opening scene of the second act, a group of travelling actors rehearse for the famous “play-within-a-play” designed to determine Claudius’ guilt. During this sequence, a programmed digital drumbeat is joined by a live, analogue rock beat. The effect is to make the artificiality of the programmed percussion all the more obvious, perhaps as a nod to the metafictional nature of Hamlet’s play-within-a-play.

Occasionally, the ballet format reveals its limitations. For example, in the original play, Hamlet resolves to kill Claudius, having determined that his uncle is indeed guilty of murder, but hesitates at the last moment because he notices that Claudius is praying. If Claudius is killed while praying, he will go to heaven, and Hamlet is determined to send him to hell. In O’Day’s Hamlet, the prince fails to kill Claudius because, in one of the adaptation’s less artful turns, he is carried off by his erstwhile schoolmates, Rosencrantz (Robert Stephen) and Guildenstern (Christopher Stalzer).

Nevertheless, the adaptation is a success. O’Day is able to transpose a highly introspective drama, famous for its beautiful speeches and clever wordplay, into a speech-free ballet. Côté and Ogden, meanwhile, are the standout performers of the production, portraying their notoriously challenging characters with grace and restraint.

Hamlet remains an enthralling enigma. It’s just that in O’Day’s production, he doesn’t talk so damned much.