By William Shakespeare. Directed by Kim Collier. A Bard on the Beach production. On the BMO Mainstage on Saturday, June 29. Continues until September 13
This Hamlet isn’t perfect—it’s too original for that—but Kim Collier’s direction is the most exciting take I’ve seen on this play and Jonathon Young’s performance in the title role is breathtakingly fresh and urgent. You’re going to want to see this production—maybe more than once.
In her contemporary staging, Collier makes Shakespeare’s tale of murder as tense and bloody as if it were playing out on a crime show on TV. Hearing that his father, the king, has died, Prince Hamlet returns to Denmark from Wittenberg, where he has been studying, and finds that his mother has hastily married his Uncle Claudius, who has assumed the throne. When the ghost of the dead king tells Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him, Hamlet swears revenge. But, entangled in thought—can he trust the ghost?—Hamlet struggles to act.
Guns make the play’s violence immediate: Hamlet shoots the old spy Polonius rather than stabbing him. And the sinister world of state intrigue is instantly recognizable: when Hamlet’s feigned madness starts to spook Claudius, the ruler’s sunglasses-wearing, smart-suited spooks hover around the unstable prince.
Right off the top, Collier shows us a postcoital Hamlet and Ophelia, which makes Hamlet’s later abuse of his girlfriend palpably wounding. And Collier’s choices about Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, bring arresting clarity to that often murky character: in this production, Gertrude (subtly played by Barbara Pollard) knows nothing of the old king’s murder, but bears the stain of her lust. This makes the closet scene, in which Hamlet pushes his mother’s face into her sexual shame, brutally engaging. And it makes the scene in which the mortally wounded Hamlet crawls across the stage to embrace—and reconcile with—his dead mom so moving that it made me weep.
It’s Young’s work in the central role that ignites the evening: in his mouth, every word of the familiar text is new. “Hold, hold my heart,” Young’s Hamlet gasps when he sees his father’s ghost, and you can feel your own heart constricting in your chest. “I have sworn it,” Hamlet says after pledging revenge, and you just know he’s surprised himself and he’s shit-scared that he may have made a pact with the devil. Young’s Hamlet is witty and painfully raw, notably when he dresses down Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, supposed friends who are spying on him for Claudius.
This is not to say that everything smells fresh in this particular state of Denmark. Collier and actor Richard Newman, who plays Polonius, go the familiar route of making the old courtier a windbag. It’s a boring choice and one that undercuts Polonius’s love for his children, Laertes and Ophelia, which is necessary to the drama. There’s an odd, unresonant implication of incestuous desire between that brother and sister. And Collier treats Ophelia (Rachel Cairns) sentimentally: when the grief-maddened young woman distributes flowers to the court after her father’s death, she drags a long garland of plastic greenery—like a prop for an ersatz Pre-Raphaelite painting—and the music goes soppy.
Collier’s a bit too in love with her technological tropes: there’s more than enough scanning of tablets and snapping of cellphone pics. And although it’s fun to hear clips of pop songs—including the Beatles’ "Revolution", as Hamlet gears up to overthrow his uncle—the snippets are short and numerous, which makes them annoying.
While many of Nancy Bryant’s costumes are beautifully cut, others—including Ophelia’s crinkly, ass-enlarging skirt—are distractingly ugly.
But I’m still in love with this Hamlet: with Pam Johnson’s spectacular, inventive white set; with Duncan Fraser’s terrifying ghost; with Naomi Wright’s foolish and abused Rosencrantz; and, most of all, with the passionate responsiveness of Young’s grief-stricken prince.