H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶ at Tarragon

On the program it’s Hamlet but the font is struck through like this: H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶.

I wondered, was this to be a musical? The advance description said

“Shakespeare’s best-known tragedy is reimagined on the Tarragon stage through the powerful lens of rock and roll.”

As someone who’s looking around like Diogenes for an honest piece of music theatre, looking under every rock, I’m open to just about anything, whether it’s

  • a musical like Nine (which I’ll be seeing this weekend),
  • an operetta like Candide which I saw twice in December,
  • an opera (what I was brought up on, what I still try to write),
  • a film using music in some capacity
  • or perhaps a play with music.

Before I attempt to describe Tarragon’s H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶  (forgive me, but if I am going to speak about it, I need to put it into some context, right?), let me simply say, wow it works. That’s the best piece of theatre I’ve seen in awhile, and a very successful telling of the story. While Fortinbras’ framing is cut, nobody bids the soldiers [to] shoot, and there are no flights of angels singing anyone to their rest: but almost everything works at least as well or better than usual.

RESIZENoah Reid. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Noah Reid (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

We’re watching something that might be called melodrama. Don’t let the word scare you, as I am simply invoking a technical term that is regularly misused.  The lines are spoken with music underneath, much as we often encounter in film, and as theatres were wont to do in past centuries but not so much lately.

One reason that the practice likely stopped? Aha!  because the popular music of the day wasn’t adequate to the task. This production features a happy marriage of our musical vernacular – the music that most people really know and love—with a story we also know and love. Topher Mokrzewski was talking about this not long ago, a theme I cited, in what’s perhaps wrong with some classical music. In a nutshell? H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶ succeeds where so many modern compositions fail, because it connects in this way:

The reason pop music resonates with people is because it resonates with their personhood and experience….Music is, at its heart, the communication of the universal humanity which we all share and must be engaged at that crucial level, where all the senses we have at our disposal allow us to love it at our most common level.The two threads can be connected.

I’ll have to get Topher to come see this show.

Before I talk about the music, there’s a feature central to the mise-en-scène, that’s enormously interesting as a kind of symbol. Everyone steps to a microphone to sing or speak, sometimes walking with a hand-held, sometimes in a stand, not unlike your classic rock-band. It resembles a concert, or a musical or opera presented in concert. Whether it’s those first moments looking at the ghost from the battlements or Claudius & his court, or anyone else, the entire show is through a microphone: except for “to be or not to be”. Ostentation and the need to dissemble is front and centre, especially when it’s slick Claudius at the microphone.

Yes there are places where we have singing, particularly in the appearances of the players, the grave-digger, and Ophelia. Most other places the rock band underscores the delivery of lines, a broad range of different self-effacing feels, vamping and repeating, without calling too much attention to themselves, not unlike a good film score. At the ends of some scenes, the emotion suddenly explode in a climactic statement. I came prepared –that is with Kleenex to stuff in my ears if they were too loud—but the levels were perfect, just loud enough to grab you.

It might depend on how you understand this story, as to who would be your favourite: but I was mightily impressed that this rock-n-roll take on Shakespeare felt profoundly authentic, in the spirit of Meagher’s book Shakespeare’s Shakespeare.  The musicians aren’t a bunch of bored technicians, outside the show. Nope. They’re integrated into the play, so much so that one can’t really tell which came first. Our grave-digger, played by Cliff Saunders, for instance was very much a Shakespearean clown, hollering and singing right into the audience, and doubled as Polonius, a broad portrayal of great fun. Our players? There’s a band onstage who turn up from beginning to end. Marcellus and Bernardo, solemnly helping spot the ghost from the battlements, but then showing us that yes they really can sing: as the Player and his Queen. Beau Dixon was maybe a bit more over-the-top in his heavy-metal screaming in The Murder of Gonzago, whereas Jack Nicholsen’s player was less rock idol and more the sympathetic actor. Tiffany Ayalik’s Ophelia is the most successful incarnation of that character I’ve seen in a very long time. Director Richard Rose gives everyone space to have their moment, but it’s especially clear with Ophelia, and in the last scene of the play.

RESIZED Noah Reid, Tiffany Ayalik. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Noah Reid and Tiffany Ayalik (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Let the audience look to their eyes.

Any Hamlet really sinks or swims on the backs of two people, and in fairness, this production leans heavily upon them. Noah Reid’s Hamlet feels very young, very vulnerable, rides the soliloquys when the music requires, but backs off and gives the lines a moment for us to hear what he’s saying. This is not a frenetic Hamlet but one where you seem to hear everything clearly. Is that perhaps because the score helps us focus on the lines that matter? That’s Rose’s doing and certainly the work of the composers (credited to the ensemble, so I’m not sure whom to credit) & performers. And Nigel Shawn Williams is a fascinating Claudius, not as threatening or scary as some I’ve seen, but indeed believable as the one who wins Gertrude, who has a sure hold on Denmark. I found the prayer sequence totally convincing, his occasional eruptions of fury beautifully connected to the person we’d come to know. Their interaction –Hamlet & Claudius—is endlessly fascinating to watch.

There are lots of other performers I could cite, but the main thing is to observe that this ensemble is tight, the music seeming to be emerging from the text rather than a latter-day addition.

H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶ continues at Tarragon Theatre until February 11th . I would strongly recommend that you see it.

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