SCRUTINY | Stratford’s Fresh Take On ‘Hamlet’ Will Get You To See It Anew

By Paula Citron on July 4, 2022

Hamlet (Photos courtesy of the Stratford Festival)
Hamlet (Photos courtesy of the Stratford Festival)

Stratford Festival 2022/Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Pasyk, Festival Theatre, May 17 to Oct. 28. Tickets here.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh no, not another Hamlet!”, think again. Polish director Peter Pasyk has given Stratford a modernist production that is articulated, thoughtful, and perhaps, most importantly, fresh.

First of all, there is the language. Purists might howl, but it seems that Pasyk has thrown out the rush of poetry, and has made Shakespeare’s text sound colloquial. Words are spoken in such a way as to be measured and deliberate, even when under high emotion. To hear every word of dialogue draws the listener more into the play. Thus, this production of Hamlet engages the audience in a close relationship between the text and visual components.

As well, this production places the monologues back into the main text. This can be a big problem in Hamlet productions — the-waiting-for-the-monologue-syndrome. Pasyk has ensured that the monologues are not isolated thoughts but are well integrated into the surrounding text, and that affects meaning. I had several Ah-Ha! moments when I heard words with fresh ears.

Pasyk has also opted to cast a young woman, Amaka Umeh, as Hamlet, but playing the male gender. She is not Hamleta! Umeh’s Hamlet presents himself as a man of small stature. You can almost see Hamlet being bullied, and becoming a mommy’s boy. Amid the alpha male-dominated court, Hamlet looks totally out of place, except when he is with the players and Horatio.

The dominating persona for Hamlet appears to be sensitive and introspective — a scholar and not a warrior, and Umeh’s performance embraces Hamlet’s fragility to great effect. All of Hamlet’s introspective monologues fit beautifully into the whole. This nerdy, cowardly demeanour, coupled with shades of autism and PTSD, and driven by nervous energy, casts a fresh new perspective on Hamlet.

Usually, sons follow fathers as kings, but Denmark moved sideways, and Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, now rules. He has also married his sister-in-law Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. I’ve always thought that Hamlet being by-passed for the crown, was an important clue to his character, as well as the way he was perceived in the court. Umeh’s characterization, conveying the awkward nature of this relationship, is spot-on.

It is interesting, over time, to have watched Graham Abbey graduate from leading man to character actor, with his acting chops intact. His Claudius is a revelation, portrayed as, would you believe, a kindly man who deeply loves his wife. Of course, he is a ruthless, power-hungry brute, but the interest is in how Abbey juggles both aspects of Claudius’ personality, the tender and the tyrant. No bluster — just a take-charge, even-spoken kind of guy.

Maev Beaty’s Gertrude, on the other hand, is played from a low-key. She seems bewildered until she is forced to show a strong hand. What I found particularly fascinating is how Gertrude swings between helplessness and power. Beaty’s characterization shows a woman who is playing a dangerous game, trying to please her husband and son, while pleasing no one. In interesting fashion, Gertrude unravels as the play progresses, becoming almost a hysteric by the end.

Almost every character in this production has been given a strong point of view. Polonius (Michael Spencer-Davis) is thankfully not a total fuss-budget, but shows some intelligence and statecraft skills. How could he rise at court without them? A Polonius with endearing qualities and the smarts — how radical is that?

As for the Polonius children, Andrea Rankin’s Ophelia has a real spark, almost of defiance. How nice to see an Ophelia that is not a doormat! Rankin, also, has to undergo a journey into madness, and one can suppose she loses her mind because she is put down at every level by her father, her brother and Hamlet, and that she is frustrated because she is not allowed to use her brains.

Laertes (Austin Eckert) is everything that Hamlet is not. He is vigorous, decisive and sure-footed in the world. He is also happy in Paris, happy at university, happy with his life. Eckert does make a definite impression, exerting Laertes’ forceful nature.

Rosencrantz (Norman Yeung) and Guildenstern (Ijeoma Emesowum) are now a boy/girl duo who are rather hippyish in their outlook. They both feed off each other as they lark about. The change in gender has brought a new dynamic in their relationship with Hamlet. With a woman on board, cajoling can become a high art.

On the other hand, the one flat character for me is Horatio (Jakob Ehman). He is played bland and colourless. Did the director want him in neutral? At any rate, Horatio is singularly uninteresting, which is too bad because he should cut a romantic figure.

In short, this production is filled with fresh ideas in terms of characters and relationships, and works very well in the modernist setting courtesy Patrick Lavender’s set and Michelle Bohn’s costumes. Richard Feren has created an arresting soundtrack that is cinematic in scope.

Pasyk’s Hamlet makes you sit up and take notice because you are seeing the play anew.

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Paula Citron
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