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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Hamlet: The Readiness Was All

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Teresa Przybylski (set / costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Thomas RyderPayne (sound)
Featuring: Jonathan Goad, Adrienne Gould, SeanaMcKenna, Tom Rooney, Geraint Wyn Davies

Centre: Jonathan Goad as Hamlet, with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou
Antoni Cimolino has done it again. With this production of Hamlet he has proven to his audiences that he can deliver the most complete version of any Shakespeare play on which he takes the helm, and that he can coax the most surprising turns out of his leading actors.

In the last several years Mr. Cimolino’s productions on the Stratford stages have been consistently the best dramas going. In 2013 his Merchant of Venice was unusually balanced and nuanced – hard to do with a play that can be so polarizing. In 2014 he enticed Colm Feore to give a performance so far out of his comfort zone that he was barely recognizable. And now in 2015, he has taken this play called Hamlet, this enormously significant piece of the English-literature canon, and chiselled it into something akin to a rough diamond. Near perfect, a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

In casting Jonathan Goad as Hamlet, Mr. Cimolino was taking a risk. Mr. Goad has been a constant at the Stratford Festival for some time, but it is for his more villainous and rascally roles that he is best known and remembered. He is really, really good at playing the scoundrel. But Hamlet?  Brooding, manic, heavy Hamlet?  Well, for loyal audiences who thought you knew his stuff, you didn’t.  He is simply a learning actor – one that consistently challenges himself, is willing to be directed, and it shows.  Mr. Goad is as charismatic as Hamlet as he is a rogue. Sure, the manic appears to come more naturally to his performance, but it is the quieter moments in the soliloquys, in the close friendships revealed that are surprisingly intimate and proves that he is an Actor’s Actor. His Hamlet may not break your heart, but this is a milestone performance for Mr. Goad.
Adrienne Gould as Ophelia and Tom Rooney as Polonius.
Photo by David Hou

The heartbreak is reserved for Adrienne Gould’s performance as Ophelia. In this production she seems desperately in love with Hamlet but also disconcerted by her family’s opposition. Yes, he is a prince, and she a clergyman’s daughter, but in the very brief moment we see them connect the connection is deep – as if they have tried to buck the class system that the world around them still embraces. Of course, Hamlet never confides in her the plot he has discovered, so any future relationship is doomed – and in this performance Ophelia’s unhinging begins with his brutal rejection, her realization of betrayal and loss, and her father’s subsequent callousness. Ms. Gould’s ‘mad Ophelia’ is raw, but her ‘rejected Ophelia’ will melt the iciest of hearts. (Keep tissues handy.)
Centre: Geraint Wyn Davies as Claudius and Seana McKenna as Gertrude.
Photo by David Hou
As King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna are once more well-matched, and once more Mr. Cimolino has inveigled from them something more than Mr. Wyn Davies’ habitual charm, and Ms. McKenna’s usual piercing-eyed ferocity. For his part, Mr. Wyn Davies’ Claudius is more politician than king or lusty husband, making tactical errors close to home while trying to placate larger powers abroad; Ms. McKenna shows Gertrude to be the emotionally weaker monarch, capitulating to whomever is the angriest with her, her son or her new husband.

Jonathan Goad as Hamlet and Tim Campbell as Horatio.
Photo by David Hou
Adding to the array of high-note performances is Tom Rooney’s sincere but ultimately foolish Polonius, and Tim Campbell’s entirely honorable Horatio. This is exactly what these characters are supposed to be, of course; Polonius however is customarily a pompous buffoon, and Horatio really is the only character in Hamlet who maintains complete integrity throughout. However, Mr. Cimolino chose to make Polonius a Lutheran clergyman which then gives his endless diatribes and platitude preaching real credulity. With the character of Horatio Mr. Cimolino and Mr. Campbell keep him humble, sincere and never in the foreground unless he is supporting Hamlet, and this lends the character the necessary heft of trust that might otherwise get lost.

These subtleties are exactly what creates this nearly perfect production. There are a few misses that keep this production from being a brilliant diamond – the intended effect of the costuming is not realized for instance – but for the most part the audience should focus on those that work – the unexpected object over which Claudius prays; the pauses that make you lean forward with anticipation; the violin case that doubles as a small coffin and what’s in it; the happy looks exchanged among the gathered throngs when Claudius announces peace with Norway, looks that turn into ugly actions when Norway comes knocking; the clergyman who is suddenly distracted by realizing for the first time that his efficient secretary is a woman. 

And then there is the lighting… Lighting effects are meant to enhance, and usually if they are noticeable there is something drastically wrong. However Michael Walton’s lighting of Teresa Przybylski’s deceptively simple set of black obelisks is nothing short of stunning.  Stunning in that you are not aware of it until you are, and then it blows you away.

Ask anyone in the world to say the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the name “Shakespeare” and ten-to-one odds the answer will be “Hamlet.”  It is a name weighty with history and tradition, a play that must have a confident director at the helm, a director who can take the infinite layers of its text, history and humanity and mold them into a relatable, believable whole.  That director is Antoni Cimolino, and this is his Hamlet.  It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 11th.

Jonathan Goad as Hamlet.
Photo by David Hou

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