The biggest thing I’m taking away from Hart House Theatre’s production of Hamlet is this: a director with a vision is the best thing that can happen to a play. Hamlet is a unit; it’s a whole world contained in a tiny bubble. There is a lingering sense that the play goes on. Hamlet begins at the end of a night watchman’s shift and ends with the beginning of a new ruler’s reign, but that isn’t the real beginning or the real end. Something happened before, and something new will happen after.
Director Paolo Santalucia brings to life a dreary Denmark indeed. The set comprises mostly scaffolding and platforms of various heights, as well a huge pile of broken chairs. The whole thing is draped in canvas drop sheets and huge pieces of plastic sheeting. Relatively speaking, very little lighting happens in the grid—most of it comes from construction lights onstage, which are moved around by the actors depending on where they are needed. The only critique I have for the set is that I think some aspects—the higher platforms, especially—could have been used more often, especially given how much hide-and-go-seek there is in this play. I found myself thinking that if this is Elsinore Castle, the rest of the country must be in pretty rough shape. It lends a certain justification to Hamlet’s line “Denmark’s a prison”. I believe it.
From the top of the play, I felt there were a few opening night jitters. I was at first disappointed by the garbled articulation that seemed to affect nearly every actor in the first few scenes, especially because a Shakespeare play is inevitably about the language. This problem cleared up, though, and by half an hour in everyone was doing much clearer, detailed work.
Dan Mousseau plays a Hamlet who actually has everyone’s best interests at heart. There are flashes of serial killer mixed in with a funny, cocky young man who just wants his girlfriend back. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia (Sheelagh Daly) was very well developed. By the text alone, the audience has to take Hamlet’s word for it: “I did love you once,” he says. But here, we get to see them actually in love, exchanging origami letters in the glaring construction light. This makes the dramatic crash and burn of their relationship all the more devastating, and for the first time I realized that it’s all Polonius’s fault. Daly has her best moments as Ophelia in the throes of madness, juggling grief, sexual frustration, and vulnerability all at once.
My personal favourite, though, was Eric Finlayson as Horatio. Hipster is a good look for him. I buy that he’s a scholar, but also that he’s Hamlet’s best friend. Horatio looks after Hamlet, he looks after Ophelia, he listens to Claudius, and he even tries to commit suicide while Hamlet is dying. If that isn’t devotion, I don’t know what is. Good acting is not about the distribution of lines—it’s about living in the world of the play, something Finlayson does expertly.
Earlier this week, I saw another production of Hamlet, this one by the National Theatre in London. Before you get all excited, I didn’t get to go to England (I know—I’m sad about it too); they live-streamed the production to a Cineplex in Toronto. Now, there is no way I can sit here and compare the two productions and live with myself afterwards. They were too different, both in terms of direction and, to be honest, budget. But I did notice that the National Theatre production possessed a certain timelessness in dress and weaponry. Although I would describe some of the clothing as “period”, Hamlet fought his last duel in jeans and a T-shirt. There was fighting with swords and modern-looking guns.
The Hart House production plays a similar game. There are guns and Converse sneakers, but also rapiers and the never-ending archaic but beautiful language. There’s a lot of high school English talk about how Shakespeare is timeless, but I don’t think that requires any kind of pinning down. Here’s my point: Hamlet as a play seems to lend itself not to one time period or another, but rather to no time period at all.
Hamlet runs until November 21.