Silence speaks volumes in Prince Hamlet's bracingly original take on Shakespeare

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      By William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Ravi Jain. A Why Not Theatre production, presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in association with UBC Theatre and Film. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, January 23. Continues until January 27

      The rest is silence.

      Those are the last words of the title character of Hamlet, and silence is only one of the things that this bracingly original take on William Shakespeare’s most quotable tragedy makes us consider in a fresh light.

      Quick plot synopsis: Hamlet has come home to find that his mother has married his uncle, Claudius, after the death of her husband. The ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals that Claudius murdered him, and makes Hamlet swear to take revenge. Grief-stricken, terrified, and furious, Hamlet feigns insanity, drives away his beloved Ophelia, and destroys himself in the process of restoring justice.

      In Ravi Jain’s adaptation, a racially diverse cast of seven women and two men play all the roles, most of them cast against conventional gender: Hamlet is played by a woman; Ophelia by a man. Horatio is played by a deaf actor, who provides embedded ASL and visual translation from the heart of the action. These radically inclusive moves add depth and texture to a play already rich in thematic substance.

      The best performances here are knockouts. Christine Horne makes black-clad Hamlet’s inner turmoil readily accessible through contemporary colloquialisms, like the valley-girl intonations she adopts when speaking to her treacherous schoolmates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Jeff Ho matches Horne’s openheartedness with a sweetly vulnerable Ophelia.

      Dawn Jani Birley’s Horatio is extraordinary. I couldn’t take my eyes off the delicate physical gestures in her translation of Ophelia’s “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown” speech; and her “blah blah blah” gestures capture the essence of most any utterance from pompous windbag Polonius (nicely played by Barbara Gordon).

      Deafness is simply part of this world: when speaking in confidence, Horatio and Hamlet sign instead of speaking, as do the players. Late in the play, Hamlet pretends to be deaf when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern propose that he come to England with them; Birley’s Horatio acts as interpreter, aggressively turning Guildenstern’s face toward her, and later stands behind Hamlet, using her arms in front to sign what Hamlet is speaking. It’s a comedic goldmine that releases some of the scene’s considerable tension.

      Rick Roberts’s Claudius could amp up that tension if he found some of Claudius’s genuine villainy; instead, he plays the character like a washed-up lounge singer, underplaying all his emotion and consequently his threat.

      Lorenzo Savoini’s spacious set features an elegant wooden platform with piles of dirt just beyond its edges, backed by three large mirrors suspended upstage. Lighting designer André du Toit favours dramatic shafts of side light that carve up the playing area. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design, a relentless series of noises and thumps, at times evoking muted cannon fire, suits the mood, but is often too intrusive.

      Sometimes it’s better to let the silence speak.