Hamlet at Prescott: Shakespeare’s Globe at the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

Reviewed by Patrick Langston

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If you blinked, then – like Hamlet trying to steel himself to action – you missed your chance.

On Saturday, Prescott’s St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival hosted Globe To Globe, the riveting international touring production of Hamlet by London, England-based Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company. It was in town (and Canada) for two shows only before hitting the road again.

The company is touring Hamlet to every country in the world between now and 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The show also links to the 450th anniversary of the writer’s birth this past April.

The tour began in Amsterdam. Prescott, where a thunderstorm cleared the air between the sultry afternoon and cooler evening performances, was the 28th stop.

We saw the evening show. Performed in the festival’s natural amphitheatre overlooking the St. Lawrence River, it began in daylight. As we bid farewell to the sweet prince some three hours later, it was full-on night: a fitting send-off for the tormented young Hamlet.

Decisive and accessible, the show – or at least the version we saw (Hamlet is played by two alternating actors, and the other performers switch roles during the tour) – rippled with the excitement that accompanies a one-time-only event.

A simple set, composed in part of the steamer trunks the troupe uses for its travels, was the backdrop for the textured, audience-inclusive production. Approaching an audience member in the first row, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) pointed at her and exclaimed, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Later, he demanded of another audience member, “Am I a coward?” drawing out the ensuing silence to the point where the seated man must almost have opened his mouth to reply.

Hayat, a slight man whose stance suggested both vulnerability and a coiled, intense intellect, gave us a Hamlet whose questing and internal conflicts push him into such psychic pain that he gnaws at his finger, explodes in fury, slams his head with his hands as though trying to drive out his thoughts for just a few minutes of mental peace.

He’s also a very funny Hamlet, sometimes just a young guy goofing around with his friends, popping his head from behind a curtain to shout, “Boo!” At other times, he’s a man whose vision overleaps his years as when, raising his arms to the open sky above Prescott’s amphitheatre, he mused, “What a piece of work is a man … how infinite in faculty!”

It all worked to link us increasingly to Hamlet, making him painfully human as he pondered what it means to be both like an angel and mere dust.

Under co-directors Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst, the other characters brimmed with life as well. Polonius (Rãwiri Paratene) was sententious but buoyant and surprisingly subversive. John Dougall gave us an icy-eyed Claudius who you could easily imagine arranging the murder of Hamlet’s father so he could wed Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Phoebe Fildes) and become king. Amanda Wilkin unapologetically played Hamlet’s dedicated friend Horatio as a woman, while Keith Bartlett as the principle gravedigger prefaced that scene by performing a magic trick, spoken in modern English, for the audience.

The weak link in all this was Jennifer Leong as Ophelia. This already-wispy lady was a non-entity in the hands of Leong who, unlike the rest of the cast, mined neither the character nor the language for anything other than a surface interpretation.

Shakespeare’s Globe bookends its show with actor-performed music. It’s a clever way of enclosing a production which, after all, is back on the road before you’ve really had time to digest it all.

St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s regular season continues until Aug. 16 with The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tickets/information: 613-925-5788, stlawrenceshakespeare.ca

 


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