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Monday, 2 June 2008

Ben Carlson leads stellar cast in Hamlet

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Adrian Noble
Featuring Ben Carlson, Geraint Wyn Davies, Adrienne Gould

The story: Prince Hamlet of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father the late king, who reveals that Claudius, the king’s brother, murdered him to gain his crown and wife. Already disgusted by his mother’s quick remarriage to Claudius, Hamlet vows to seek revenge for his father, taking him – and others - down a dark path.

The intermission for Hamlet comes two hours into the play, but it takes less than two minutes to become so enthralled by Ben Carlson’s performance that you want to take the play in huge gulps, impatient for next moment’s speech or action. Even fully knowing the story, it is hard to predict how it will unfold, what will be revealed about Hamlet. Mr. Carlson’s intuition in mining the character, his charisma that draws the audience to him and his uncanny skill in speaking Shakespeare’s words with such clarity is so astonishing that the end of the play comes far too quickly. In the soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” a ferocious challenge is thrown at a suddenly flinching audience, as if we were somehow complicit in causing his pain.

The connection to the audience is emphasized in some clever staging. Actors disappear up the aisles while spotlights are thrown on them and the audience; the pointed set protrudes near the front row, alarmingly near when Claudius dies on that spot. While it does not break that fourth wall, it certainly puts a thrilling crack in it.

Exceptional staging accentuates many strong performances. Geraint Wyn Davies, Bruce Godfree and Adrienne Gould form a solid and affectionate family unit as Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia that sharply contrasts the dysfunction of Hamlet’s family. Hamlet obviously loves Ophelia in this production and in the ‘nunnery’ scene Ms. Gould and Mr. Carlson produce a relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet that is deep, many layered, and remarkably touching. In Ms. Gould’s portrayal we see an Ophelia who is optimistic and hopeful that her love for Hamlet is not unrequited. We see an Ophelia who desperately wants to help Hamlet but does not know how, and has been forbidden by her father – she must disappoint one of the men she loves. This scene is also very intriguing. Does Hamlet know that he is being spied on at this point or doesn’t he? The answer is “yes” to both questions, and the result is both sad and terrifying.

However this production is not all grim. Alongside Mr. Wyn Davies’ pitch-perfect Polonius, humour is used to wonderful effect in parts not traditionally funny. The audience is allowed to relax and laugh, and these brief respites make the ensuing tragedy all the more terrible. A fine example is Ophelia’s mad scene, where Ms. Gould grotesquely mirrors her earlier scenes: a beloved treasure box has become a doll’s coffin, and a tender piano duet played earlier with her father is perverted when she plays it with Claudius.

There are imperfections – Maria Ricossa does not produce an especially warm, motherly Gertrude, although that appears to have been the intent. As Claudius, Scott Wentworth illustrates the growing burden of his guilt well enough, but is strangely quiet, as if he does not want to audience to intrude on Claudius’ thoughts; next to Mr. Carlson’s delivery the difference in clarity is very noticeable. For such central characters one hopes that both these things can be attributed to opening night jitters and will smooth out in later shows.

But the strong far outweighs the weak, and other characters that are formidably drawn include Tom Rooney’s concerned Horatio, and Victor Ertmanis’ First Gravedigger, among others. For those who remember Peter Donaldson’s Timon of Athens (2004), this production is of the same diamond-cut calibre, and should not be missed.

Hamlet continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

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