From the moment you walk into the tiny Havana Theatre space you know this is not your grandmother's Hamlet. Some of the seats in the alley-shaped room hold actors, costumed but conversing with patrons as if they too are there to discover a story. And in a way, I guess, they are. When player Kat Gauthier steps forward to address the audience, the lilting iambic pentameter that soon reveals itself as a clever self-deprecating front-of-house speech confirms your status as comrades on a journey. The warmth of her eyes and the smile dancing at the corners of her mouth offer a welcome as intimate and irresistible as an embrace.
It is an apt beginning.
I have seen Hamlet before; several times in fact. The first was a professional production viewed by my grade 12 English class. While the teacher Mr. Lee can be credited with sparking my interest in Shakespeare and this play, the production was most memorable for the number of paper airplanes disrespectful high schoolers sailed onto the stage in response to the four hour production. Other versions over the years had more to recommend them. But none has moved me like this one.
An ambitious venture by the cleverly-named Honest Fishmonger's Equity Co-op, the production features recent graduates of several of the city's theatre training programs (Kat Gauthier is from TWU), alongside established theatre professionals like David Bloom (Claudius)and Simon Webb (Polonius). Directed by Kevin Bennet, the show makes ingenious use of its intimate surroundings, engaging the audience from those opening moments right through to the final words. Jennifer Stewart's "first full fledged set design" is a study in simplicity. By enveloping the audience in a room of sheets, Stewart creates the perfect ambience for Bennet's inclusive vision. The "walls" alternately reveal and conceal, providing proximity and distance, immediacy and scope, without a single cumbersome set change.
The heart of the production, however, is the acting. In a cast without a weak link it is dangerous to single anyone out, particularly when the final effect is ensemble. But several of the performances were a revelation to me, the first in a most unexpected place.
I confess I have never thought much about Hamlet's father; I've always considered him more of a dramatic device than a person. He gives the story a nice little ghostly kick-off and serves as the catalyst for the action to follow. But he has never lived for me until tonight. For the first time, I realized the enormity of what has happened. Claudius has killed his own brother and married his wife, stealing her heart and Hamlet's crown. Watching the pain, loss, and betrayal on Michael Fera's fatherly face as young Hamlet discovers what has happened brought tears to my eyes. When contrasted with Fera's hilariously lowbrow gravedigger, the man's talent cannot be ignored.
As Claudius, David Bloom is a delicious blend of cunning and charisma. While we see the evil within, the veneer of charm is sincere enough to prevent us from dismissing Gertrude's attraction too easily. Simon Webb's Polonius is delightful; his parental platitudes land with just the right tone of self-congratulation and I could see Mr. Lee's approving nod. As Laertes, Joshua Reynolds transforms a shallow and vengeful young man into a devoted son, brother, and friend, a man whose mounting losses tragically propel the story to its inevitable conclusion. And as Horatio, Sebastian Kroon personifies a true friend: gentle, solid and compassionate to the end.
The biggest surprise for me was Ophelia, a character I had always regarded with contempt, an addle-brained lovesick airhead whose inability to speak for herself or survive without a man leads to her well-deserved demise. But Julie McIssac taught me different. Her Ophelia brims with life and intelligence - listening to her father, sparring with her brother, wooing her prince. Hamlet's rejection wounds her in a way we feel and when she enters wild-eyed, cradling her fragile blossoms, her madness wounds us. Her sweet, tortured voice climbs and falls through its discordant melodies as her body is tossed by unseen demons from place to place.
One other remarkable accomplishment: the production is almost completely devoid of yelling. One of my many pet peeves in the theatre is that intensity all too often equals volume. This Hamlet was undeniably intense but the depth of its passion was matched by a refreshing breadth of expression.
I am so grateful for this production. The power of a good story well-told was confirmed to me tonight. The opportunity to experience the humanity of these characters and to take their journey is a gift.
In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L'Engle says, "In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure..."
Thank you, Honest Fishmongers, for helping me remember.