In the latter days of the siege, the world comes back to life.
In 2019, after having seen Othello and The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford–that Festival that plays so heavily in my history as a young adult–I eagerly awaited the 2020 season when it was announced in January of that year. In particular, I was excited at the prospect of a Hamlet with a young Black woman as the lead, and Richard III with Colm Feore.
Both of those productions are scheduled this year, with their previously-announced leads, and I saw Hamlet last night, the “official” opening night (which meant the cast walked the red carpet to the sounds of a local pipe band and some audience members took the opportunity to dress fabulously or elegantly. I was able to get a ticket for the performance–and in a damned good seat as well, though off to one side–for all of $25.
I’d heard Umah interviewed on CBC, and read a couple articles as well, so I was aware now that “woman” isn’t quite the right word for this actor, although it’s not completely wrong. Umah is genderfluid and uses either she/her or they/them pronouns. But I think it’s also telling that in the playbill and elsewhere, there is absolutely no fuss or attention paid to the fact that Umah is playing a male role. It’s not played up as a statement of any kind. And it was clear from the very beginning that Umah’s Hamlet is not a “female Hamlet” or even really a “queer Hamlet” (beyond the fact that the actor is queer.) This Hamlet is male, and the fact that this is just something you accept from very early in the play speaks to Umah’s talents. Similarly, the cast is diverse–something becoming more common at Stratford–but soon everyone disappears into their characters (although it would be hard to imagine Graham Abbey’s Claudius as anything other than a white guy of a certain generation).
Umah’s Hamlet goes light on the melancholy and heavy on the “antic” side of his madness. There is little broodiness, but there is crackling intensity, anger, and a lot of wonderful snark–all the way up through the intermission (just after the players’ scene), there are a lot of genuine laughs. My favourite is the line “I seem to have lost my mirth,” said in a way that’s clear that he hasn’t lost it at all; it’s just transformed itself to black humour. And it never really goes away–it’s there in the gravediggers’ scene as well, at the edge of the precipice. This is probably the funniest production of the play I’ve ever seen.
Hamlet in this production reminds me of a theatre kid on a visit home to his mom and her new husband, who just don’t get him (oh, and who also murdered his father). He greets the departing Laertes with an elaborate set of hand signs (not unlike some I’ve seen used by Black fraternity brothers) and is genuinely excited at first with the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played by a man and a woman), again with a sort of little routine of patter that underscores their closeness better than any production I’ve ever seen. And when the travelling theatrical troupe shows up, Hamlet is clearly one of them. So’s Polonius, recalling with passion how he played Julius Caesar–he’s more than just the usual doddering old windbag here. Hamlet serves as a narrator (with a microphone) during the pivotal poisoning scene of the play within a play.
In contrast, Graeham Abbey as Claudius is the perfect foil–a blandly handsome, milquetoast, middle-aged white man who is utterly incapable of understanding why he is evil. Maev Beaty as Gertrude in her white dress is motherly and mostly clueless as well, although with flashes of understanding–but she clearly wants to believe that Hamlet is just pining over Ophelia than that her new husband could possibly be that guy.
I did find the interaction between Ophelia and Hamlet a little bit lacking in any kind of chemistry beyond a very good start at their first meeting, where they enjoy a passionate embrace. She comes off a little as a cypher, even in her mad scene. Horatio is also a little bland, but he’s written that way, there mostly as a faithful friend and sidekick to his much more vibrant friend (and to be the main survivor of the carnage of the final scene–not for nothing do I call this play Everybody Dies But Horatio).
The production is set in the current day, with cellphones playing a pivotal role, guards wearing earpieces, and the mad Ophelia fitted with a tracking anklet. There is little set dressing beyond a few portable pieces of furniture. The play starts with the deceased king in a display case, not unlike Lenin in his tomb, which is then covered up (highly symbolically) with a tablecloth and garland for the next scene, when Hamlet is welcomed home. (A twist occurs with this a little later, which I won’t spoil). The music composed for the production reminded me a lot of Philip Glass, with the Dies Irae used as a recurring motif.
It was a wonderful night, and they even had the fabulous scones I remember so fondly. Now, sometime soon, hopefully on to Richard III.