Hamlet (2015)Hamlet (2015)

by William Shakeskpeare
a Snakeskkin Jacket & Bravura Theatre co-production
Directed by Sarah Constible
Featuring Ian Bastin, Rod Beilfuss, Michelle Boulet, Tristan Carlucci, Dora Carroll, Andrew Cecon, Colin Connor, Murray Farnell, Rafael Ferrao, Emily King, Ivan Henwood, James Magnus-Johnston, Chris Sabel, CindyMarie Small


“Last August, tickets went on sale for a play at London’s Barbican Centre. Seats for the 12-week run of the production — which hasn’t even opened yet — sold out within hours, leading some to call it ‘the most in-demand theatre production of all time’. Never mind that the play is more than 400 years old. This was, of course, the upcoming production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. And all of this is to say there’s still certainly an interest in seeing the famous tragedy. But with that demand comes high expectations for the handling of what some would call the greatest work of drama in history, and certainly among the most performed. So if you’re going to take it on, you’d better get it right. What relief for all concerned, then, that a new production from Winnipeg indie companies Bravura Theatre and Snakeskin Jacket does justice to Shakespeare’s tale of a young prince who seeks to avenge his father’s death — and grapples with his own place in the universe at the same time.

Brazilian-Canadian Rodrigo Beilfuss takes on both co-production duties and the role of the prince of Denmark here. His Hamlet is youthful, brash and passionate — sometimes perhaps too much so, as his more violent outbursts occasionally feel oversized in what is otherwise an understated, intimate production. But his commitment to the role can’t be faulted, and there’s tremendous beauty in many of his quieter moments. A wordless interscene between Hamlet and Ophelia (Dorothy Carroll), for example, achingly plays out their troubled relationship. Hamlet’s sense of betrayal when he confronts his supposed friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (beautifully played by Andrew Cecon and Ian Bastin) is palpable and sad. He likewise handles the daunting soliloquies — some of the most famous lines in dramatic literature — delicately and confidently.

He’s backed by some marvellous performances in the 13-member supporting cast. In one of director Sarah Constible’s bolder moves, the meddlesome advisor Polonius is re-cast as a woman, and played with more charm than is usual for the character by Michelle Boulet. It’s an inspired choice that takes the character from a prattling fool to a fussing, helicopter-ish mother — but a more fully dimensional, and far more interesting character than expected. Ivan Henwood deftly steers the murderous King Claudius out of stock villain territory, giving him a cool, restrained intelligence and menace. Chris Sabel makes the often thankless character of Hamlet’s stolid friend Horatio fascinating, with a subtle but convincing performance that clearly conveys his devotion to the prince, but also the wisdom that makes Hamlet trust him so. Dorothy Carroll gives Ophelia more mettle than is common in the character, but also delivers her breakdown convincingly. CindyMarie Small plays Gertrude with a suitably regal bearing. And Tristan Carlucci and Colin Connor bring nice comic relief in several small roles, most notably the gravediggers. Constible’s production pares the play down to its bare elements. It’s a Fringe-style approach (complete with a stuffy venue on opening night, thanks to misbehaving air conditioning), using virtually no set, and moving briskly from scene to scene, even shepherding the audience efficiently between two playing spaces. It’s smartly paced, and its 150 minute (with intermission) running time feels like it moves engagingly and energetically, thanks to Constible’s sure-footed direction and a judicious script edit by Beilfuss.

The production’s most notable deviation from Shakespeare’s script is a sprinkling of several languages throughout. Much of the dialogue between Hamlet and the ghost of his father (playing with chilling effectiveness by Brazilian ex-pat Rafael Ferrao) is delivered in Portuguese, for example. As Ophelia slips into madness, her language mixes in more French, while the visiting players use Italian as their native tongue. The stated intent seems to be underlining the universality of Shakespeare, though it doesn’t always quite work in practice — not so much because we don’t understand what’s going on, but because the dramatic reasoning for the linguistic morphing isn’t always entirely clear. That’s a small qualm, though. As a whole, this is a production that takes on one of the most challenging works ever written, and delivers a consistently compelling and vibrant telling of a well-known tale. Not bad at all for a 400-and-some-year-old.” — Joff Schmidt, CBC

“In this less-is-more revival, Hamlet is trimmed of a good portion of Shakespeare’s text, pared of most production values and reduced to being staged on a bare, postage-stamp-sized space. It’s all done in the service of tightening the focus of the Bravura Theatre/Snakeskin Jacket co-production solely on Prince Hamlet and the tragedy that befalls his family after the murder of his father and the remarriage of his mother, Gertrude, to his uncle Claudius. All the business about international politics and Prince Fortinbras is dropped in what some will regard as a Reader’s Digest version, owing to its running time of 150 minutes (with intermission), still substantial but an intense sprint for a Hamlet.

Such a taut, no-frills version, which began a six-performance run Wednesday evening, depends for its success on good actors, out there on their own, delivering an accomplished reading of a great play. Members of the local cast, headed by Rodrigo Beilfuss in the title role, bring a bruising, painful intensity to the family relationships that lend this production its urgency and emotional depth. They accomplish that in extremely tight quarters in Studio 320, where sightlines are also an issue. One scene with 10 actors on the stage climaxed with a wrestling match in which onlookers were at risk of being taken out like bowling pins. To gain some room, director Sarah Constible moved the audience to a nearby space to present the play-within-the-play scene, as well as the climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. Many in the opening-night crowd were thankful for the escape from uncomfortably warm conditions.

In the title role, Beilfuss offers a straightforward, fashionably modern-dress approach. Tall and dark, he cuts a princely figure in a black suit and tie, the stand-in for Hamlet’s “inky cloak.” His fluency in handling the rhythms and meanings of Shakespeare’s poetry is impressive. Yet his “To be or not to be” or “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” aren’t the selling points here. He is stronger on action than introspection. Beilfuss presents the indecisions, vacillations and dithering without selling short the bursts of dynamism, fury and passion. The trademark — or should that be sound bite? — of his portrayal is his slamming his hand loudly against any and all surfaces to amplify his pique. He flicks through moods, and when in the company of his university friends, the Dane is transformed into a wild and crazy guy who comes close to early Steve Martin standup. Beilfuss works hard to give us every aspect of Hamlet — raging royal, melancholy brooder, angry revenge-seeker, grieving son, confused lover — so it’s inevitable that his character seems incoherent at times. But then a coherent Hamlet is, by definition, an incomplete one.

Ivan Henwood’s Claudius is imposing, loathsome and all business, his hollow confidence gradually giving way to an overwhelming anguish, audible in his voice when he reflects on his own guilt. It is easy to understand why Gertrude, especially this rather timid Gertrude portrayed by CindyMarie Small, would turn to him for strength and solace. As Ophelia, Dorothy Carroll radiates a lively, girlish enthusiasm that is quite captivating. That makes Ophelia’s frightening fall into madness, which Carroll sells convincingly, all the more chilling. Michelle Boulet makes a splendid female Polonius — dry, spare, pedantic, laughable without being ludicrous. She lends a contemporary pomposity that brightens the otherwise dark days. Rafael Ferrao, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, looks like a member of the local band Mariachi Ghost, and is scary-looking in both English and the Portuguese he communicates in with Hamlet. Chris Sabel is appropriately low-key in his role as Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and confidant…while the philosophizing gravediggers Tristan Carlucci and Colin Connor unearth plenty of laughs in their comic duet.

Being re-introduced to Hamlet after an absence of many years reminds us what a monumental quote-fest it is and how many of its memorable lines are embedded in our everyday speech.” — Kevin Prokosh, Winnipeg Free Press