Do you ever need a tragedy? Sometimes I think we can be so burdened by the troubles of our own lives and the stories we hear from others, that we hunger for catharsis. I can’t be objective about the show I saw tonight, because I was starving for something, overwhelmed by the firestorm I started this week, by so many emotional people coming to me and sharing their stories. All I know is that tonight I cried in several places, laughed in several others, and came out feeling as refreshed as if I’d had a workout and a long hot shower, cleansed and refreshed and energized.
Prince Hamlet is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy from Why Not Theatre, at the Berkeley St space of Canadian Stage. It’s been seen before, but I missed it last time, and now I see why it was so celebrated. My admiration is combined with a need to understand, perhaps a bit like the drinker trying to replicate the deliciousness that permeates the taste buds and haunts the memory.
Opera lovers know this feeling, when you’ve come to a familiar work and see something that’s close enough to the original to allow you to see through it, seeing what’s overlaid decorating and embellishing the framework we need to recognize the story. I can’t decide what’s more enticing, between the moments when we get the parts we know, such as “to be or not to be” or the places where we’re denied the expected line and get something just a bit different, as in the final speech.
It’s a team effort, and so I want to be certain I give credit, as there’s much credit to be shared. Ravi Jain is the adapter & director. Dawn Jani Birley is credited as ASL & Visual translation, as well as playing the role of Horatio. Now you must imagine if you will, that you’re getting Hamlet in two languages: English but also American Sign Language. When I first heard of this my head cocked at a funny angle, like one of those dogs who doesn’t understand his master’s directions. I wondered what this could be like.
The reason I put the preamble on there about how much I needed this and how perfectly it filled me up and made me laugh and cry is necessary, because I want to calibrate my response. Is this really the best thing I’ve seen this year? Maybe. Or am I just raw and emotional from this week? I think, though that yes, it really is that good, that I was just lucky, like a hungry guy stumbling upon a really great restaurant in his moment of hunger.
And so at times we are in a realm that seems genuinely operatic. There’s a tiny bit of music from Thomas Ryder Payne, that is often subliminal or barely noticeable –except of course to musicians or nerds like myself—adding a wonderful depth to the proceedings. But when I speak of this as operatic I mean in the sense of the broadening of emotions that we get with opera. We’re in the presence of big ideas and big emotions, on a stage where nothing is really held back, where several performers grab the stage and make the most of their moment. I’ve seen quite a few Hamlets in the past few years, and this one is by far the most successful precisely because it’s an adaptation, a departure from the original into something else: allowing every character to have their perfect moment.
I can’t decide who I like better between Christine Horne’s Hamlet and Birley’s ASL Horatio. I think I am blown away with admiration for Horne’s work, while I love what Birley did –and I say that with a quaver in my voice like someone who is heart-broken that I can’t stay in that place where she took me tonight, beautiful beyond words.
This is a very energetic passionate Hamlet. Because of the ASL we’re in a very meta-theatrical place, automatically in a show within a show, due to the omnipresent mediation efforts of Birley: although I think everyone in the show does some ASL as part of their performance. It really is bilingual. Yet we’re not in a rhetorically Shakespearean place, no sense of set-pieces, of structure and fights and artifice. For one reason or another –that I’ll attempt to figure out as I ponder the show—everything moves with fluidity. I guess that’s Jain’s adaptation, brilliantly seguing from scene to scene without much ado, with little effort.
Several moments in the show represent original treatments of parts of Hamlet, that I need to approach gingerly so as to avoid being a spoiler (although many of you must have seen it when it was done last time). I don’t like it when a critic ruins something by doing the lazy thing and describing what they saw, and in the process sucking the energy out of it by helping the audience know what to expect.
“To be or not to be” is unlike any I’ve encountered. When it erupts out of its scene it is the most natural and organic version, not least because Horne propels it right into our faces. I started to cry as I wondered about a young woman pondering suicide. I perceived her as a woman playing Prince Hamlet, so at this point relatively early in the show, I still perceived her as female… later? The gender seems to vanish. It’s not like any reading of the speech I’ve ever found. Compelling, urgent, and not at all like a soliloquy but rather like a seamless part of the play. Wow. And yes Horne is so good, delivering zillions of lines (it’s a huge part) without any sign of effort and then on top of that she’s also signing much of her part as well.
But just when you thought I was going to tell you how huge her part is, well I must talk about Birley, who is signing throughout, sometimes in response, sometimes? Venturing into something else like interpretative dance. Or so it seemed. There are places where the English lines are missing but because we know so much of the play, it doesn’t matter.
It’s so beautiful, pardon me I’m stunned, a Hamlet like no other. Forgive me, I’m trying desperately to find words for something so sublime and so beautiful.
But there were laughs too. At times the ASL allows members of the cast to suddenly retreat into something that’s not English, a game that Hamlet plays a couple of times as part of his madness. We are in a realm where comprehension might be a struggle. Is that really a ghost? What does that mean for the life one is leading? Language fails in the presence of such questions. We watch Hamlet investigate the meaning of life and later, watch Claudius soliloquizing about prayer before a mirror (whereby we see his struggle): the most poignant and powerful version of that speech I’ve ever seen; thank you Rick Roberts for making me cry. We see the most playful & enjoyable gravedigger of Miriam Fernandes , setting up some wonderful & poignant moments. We don’t need a skull to be confronted with the mortality of Yorick, nor by implication, that of Hamlet, Laertes or Ophelia. I am a sucker for Laertes’s passion, especially vulnerable in the portrayal of Khadijah Roberts—Abdullah, another moment when I was blind-sided by tears.
And Birley totally destroyed me at the end.
Prince Hamlet continues until February 24th at Berkeley St Theatre.
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