Valanced Faces

STRATFORD, ON—Apparently Jonathan Goad takes Hamlet at his word when he says he will “put an antic disposition on.”  His performance is full of hopping and howling; he walks backwards like a crab and suckles at Claudius’ (Geraint Wyn Davies) breast like a feeding baby.  It certainly isn’t the way I read Hamlet—and yet, it works better than one might expect: barbed comments are transformed into passive aggressive chuckles, so that the prince can even share a laugh with Polonius (an hysterically pretentious Tom Rooney), even if the latter does so with unease.

This doesn’t exactly run counter to the text, either, which is obsessed with theatricality.  In addition to Hamlet’s “north-north-west” madness, we have a reference to the theater where the play originated (“this distracted globe”), to previous roles played by Shakespeare’s actors (“I did enact Julius Caesar: I was killed i’ the / Capitol”), a series of conspicuous curtains, and, of course, the players themselves, who unwittingly help Hamlet “catch the conscience of the king.”  Director Antoni Cimolino’s Hamlet continually teases this line between truthful art and deceitful life, and so, when performing the dumb show before The Mousetrap, the players pull Claudius onstage and make him pour the poison into the ear of the fictional king.  Since Mr. Wyn Davies plays both the Ghost of King Hamlet and his brother, the implication is that Claudius’ fratricide is also self-murder.

It’s small moments like these that make this Hamlet memorable: when Polonius ends his famous speech to Laertes (Mike Shara), for example, he holds the hands of both his son and daughter Ophelia (Adrienne Gould), mimicking a priest at the end of a wedding and thus hinting at an incestuous relationship.  When Hamlet berates Ophelia, Mr. Goad plays him as undecided rather than unwaveringly caustic, occasionally sneaking a sincere and tender moment in between his demands that she leave for a nunnery.  And when the Ghost walks around the darkened stage, he carries a near-blinding lantern, echoing the wanderers of Greek mythology and cementing in our minds that he is “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night.”

I do wish that, in balance with his antics, Mr. Goad would more frequently “speak daggers,” thereby infusing the production with a greater sense of dread.  Indeed, there is rarely a moment where the threat of violence is palpable; even after the bodies start piling up, the tension is lax, leaving us with little sense that we are watching a tragedy.  Still, both despite and because of all its clowning, this Hamlet charms, even if it never quite rattles.

Hamlet runs through October 11th at the Festival Theatre.  55 Queen Street  Stratford, ON.  2 hours 50 minutes.  One intermission.

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