Bard on the Beach’s Hamlet

The headline gives it all away: Bard on the Beach’s 35th season production of Hamlet – directed, adapted, and updated by the inventive mind of Stephen Drover – lets audiences peer into the inner sanctum of the characters like never before.

There has never been a more apt time to bring focus to the mental health of the human condition. The existential tug-of-war within this version of Hamlet gives way to the louder voices of his inner demons.

In some circles, Hamlet has been revered as Shakespeare’s magnum opus, so if you decide to mess with perfection, you had better be careful. Most audiences are acquainted with the plot, including the most famous lines. It’s like looking at the night sky for the familiar Big Dipper.

Aidan Correia, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab, Ivy Charles
[Aidan Correia, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab, Ivy Charles]

In a modest way, this adaptation can be compared to the James Webb telescope – the stars had always been there but we were unable to see them with such clarity until now. Drover revealed that the ideas had been percolating for a good six years before fruition. The result is a Hamlet that is more current, heartfelt, relatable, and digestible for all audiences.

Shakespeare shrouds his opening with fear and mystery. By contrast, Drover’s rendition begins with Hamlet and Ophelia huddled together while grieving over (presumably) family home movies. Cremated ashes of the late King Hamlet sit in an urn. The scene is intimate, sad and tender, revealing an affectionate connection between the two.

Prince Hamlet has been recalled to Denmark over the sudden death of his father. He is in deep mourning and has not yet recovered from the shock when his mother re-marries his uncle. Supernatural revelations of murder further attack his fragile condition. Within the rigid obligations of royal status, he neither asks for help, nor is offered any. The inner turmoil of the unfortunate characters are on full display in this interpretation.

Nadeem-Umar-Phillip-Khitab, Kate Besworth
[Nadeem Umar Phillip Khitab, Kate Besworth]

Instead of making the audience wait for the all-too-recognizable “To Be or Not To Be” speech in Act III, Drover shifts it to the beginning. This would also be Hamlet’s only true soliloquy because he will never be absolutely alone onstage again. At this point, nothing supernatural has occurred so the prince is simply in a state of deep grief. Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab evokes genuine emotion with his haunting and agonizing delivery. The words are familiar but the impact is poignant and mesmerizing.

The gossamer thin silence is broken by the marriage party bursting into the scene. The action of the play is set on its tracks where Drover can strategically apply the brakes.

Hamlet will expostulate his remaining soliloquies in time-stop sequences as he weaves among the characters, spewing his discontent to an oblivious Danish court. This technique allows us to participate inside Hamlet’s head while the world is revolving around him.

Munish Sharma, Jennifer Clement, Christine Quintana
[Munish Sharma, Jennifer Clement, Christine Quintana]

The re-arrangement of these speeches has a more natural flow than at the end of a scene, when an actor is isolated, wandering aimlessly around the stage. The subtext is elevated and made more appreciable because in real life, activity does not cease while we think our thoughts. Neither does it cease for Hamlet. In this manner, Claudius’ later confession cements his duplicitous nature to “smile and smile and be a villain” (Act I, v).

Drover credits much of the rigorous stage management to an extraordinary team, consisting of Joanne, P.B. Smith, Jennifer Stewart, and Harlow Nguyen. This impeccable production is the culmination of their Herculean efforts. Lisa Goebel and Jonathan Hawley Purvis also deserve praise for their careful direction in choreography and fighting, respectively.

Khitab is imminently successful in revealing Hamlet’s multitude of dimensions. This complex prince is angry, confused, callous, loving, and pitiable all at once. Kate Besworth plays an dutiful Ophelia who draws out his warm affection but also his wild suspicions of perfidy. Since we have glimpsed their mutual attachment, her subsequent misfortunes are made more profound. She loves him but must obey her father. She is helpless.

Andrew Wheeler, Kate Besworth
[Andrew Wheeler, Kate Besworth]

Besworth’s vulnerable portrayal is heart-wrenching as she spirals from sweetness to grief to hysterical madness. At the height of her mania, she seizes the cremated ashes and scatters them instead of flowers.

The father-knows-best attitude from a loquacious Polonius fails to save Ophelia from her ultimate fate. The redoubtable Andrew Wheeler portrays a patriarch who is both beloved and revered by his children. Polonius’ misplaced loyalty to the deceitful Claudius (Munish Sharma) seals his own demise. Sharma artfully counterfeits as a smooth and charming king with more than just killer dance moves. Paired with the regal Gertrude (Jennifer Clement), they exude domestic bliss to throngs of eager paparazzi. These stylist elements echo what current English royals are enduring, adding to the modern touches of this play.

Matthew Ip Shaw, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab
[Matthew Ip Shaw, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab]

Matthew Ip Shaw offers a trustworthy Horatio for Hamlet to rely on. His calm steadfastness is contrasted by the equally loyal but exceedingly more passionate Laertes (Nathan Kay). In Twelfth Night, Kay presents as hilariously limp and foppish but in Hamlet he seamlessly dons the protective ardor of avenging kin.

Set designer Pam Johnson has outdone herself again with her richly ornate library where most of the action unfurls. Warm tones, contemporary oak accents, and even the ladder from Twelfth Night has been incorporated. It’s a wonder how she was able to transform the space from a rambunctious carnival.

The dazzling circus crown that exuded unbridled gaiety is made to lower in the sombre closing scene. Barbara Clayden’s costumes espouse a superb alignment with Danish trends of simplicity, elegance, and comfort. This wardrobe flaunts the most colourful palette of apparel created for Hamlet in years.

Kate Besworth
[Kate Besworth]

Bard’s first staging of the play in 1995 featured dark-themed 19th century garb. The 2005 production was clean, militaristic, and grey. The black and white canvas of the 2013 version was situated in a stark and ultra modern Norway. Clayden’s sophisticated hues ricochet off brilliant whites, which unfortunately, by the last scene, necessitate a lot of laundry!

Precise masters of their craft, Gerald King (lighting) and Mary Jane Coomber (sound design) contribute to the phantasmagoric essence in the atmosphere. The Ghost (Marcus Youssef) is bathed in a mesmeric, unearthly glow that is suddenly shattered by Hamlet’s urgent embrace. This interlude might be the only creative change I would suggest to this remarkable rendition.

Marcus Youssef, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab
[Marcus Youssef, Nadeem Phillip Umar Khitab]

The bodily contact and the Ghost speaking with his own voice severs the supernatural trance cast onto the audience. A disembodied voice-over, such as when the Ghost booms “swear!”, may have a more hypnotic effect.

Twelfth Night was my brother’s first Bard on the Beach excursion. He joined me again as a second-timer (har har), providing his own cheeky observations upon hearing the “To Be” speech right off the bat.

Without the elaborate back-story and fancy language, Hamlet is little more than a serial murderer (three direct and four indirect) driven by his own convictions, justified or not. It might have been better for the body count for him to have chosen “not to be.” Perhaps Bard will have a spin-off story about that alternate universe someday.

Bard on the Beach’s Hamlet continues on the BMO Mainstage through September 20.

Photos by Tim Matheson.

About Our Contributor Cora Li

Cora Li

Cora dabbles in arts, technology, food, and travel. She loves that Vancouver offers a vast playground for exploring all of her passions. Cora’s most memorable job to date was working with VANOC during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

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