Review: ‘Hamlet’ in Toronto’s High Park scores with strong lead, energy Special

Posted Jul 19, 2016 by Jeff Cottrill
How do you scrunch “Hamlet” down to ninety minutes without killing the plot or losing too many of the great soliloquies? Sounds like an impossible task, but Canadian Stage manages to pull it off in a surprisingly solid High Park production.
Hamlet (Frank Cox-O’Connell) isn t quite at his best after his mother and uncle s marriage  in Can...
Hamlet (Frank Cox-O’Connell) isn't quite at his best after his mother and uncle's marriage, in Canadian Stage's "Hamlet".
Cylla von Tiedemann
CanStage’s Shakespeare in High Park (SiHP) has specialized in outdoor productions of the Bard’s comedies (and the occasional Romeo and Juliet) since the 1980s, but it began pairing comedies with other tragedies in 2013. This year’s Hamlet, directed by Birgit Schreyer Duarte, is the most satisfying tragedy SiHP has done since the format change — an achievement that’s all the more impressive when you consider how long Hamlet is and how much greatness has to be cut to pare it down to half its length. Even Laurence Olivier had to cut most of a major speech and three important characters in his 1948 film. The production officially opened on Thursday, but that performance was rained out halfway; it’s alternating nights with All’s Well that Ends Well.
Much of the credit should go to Frank Cox-O’Connell in the lead role: his modern-day Danish prince is the sulky, depressed emo kid we always suspected Hamlet was, sitting and brooding by himself in a black suit, cutting himself with glass shards, stabbing a nearby balloon and yanking the tablecloth off his uncle’s banquet table in fits of frustration. But Cox-O’Connell also puts enough charm, intelligence and energy into the part that you still root for him. His “antic disposition” — pretending to be mad to disguise his real goal of murdering his uncle, Claudius (Alon Nashman) — is played primarily for laughs; he freaks out Ophelia (Rose Tuong) by magically pulling a flower out of his mouth and scares Polonius (Nicky Guadagni) by pretending to be a ghost. But you still get a feel for Hamlet’s irreverence and inability to suffer fools.
Also in good form is Nashman, whose Claudius seems smarmy and full of himself at first — a modern celebrity, posing on a platform with his new queen and winking at his audience — but later becomes a lot more sympathetic when his fear and guilt come out. He also seems to have true feelings for his wife (and former sister-in-law), Gertrude (Rachel Jones) — or at the very least, they’re still deep in the honeymoon phase, dancing across the stage while Hamlet moves out of their view in disgust.
Jones fills Gertrude with apparently genuine compassion for her son’s perceived madness, along with honest obliviousness to her husband’s darker designs. Before Ophelia’s later mad scenes, Tuong plays her as somewhat of a pouty, rebellious teen, mimicking Hamlet’s little tantrums by banging on a piano and slamming down a box lid. This behaviour works best when it’s in reaction to the nosy, controlling actions of her mother, Polonius, whom Guadagni imbues with just the right pushiness and lack of self-awareness.
The actors weren’t the only stars who showed up for the performance on Saturday, when I saw it — as I later found out from Canadian Stage’s Twitter account:
This Hamlet moves quickly (thanks in part to the strategic cutting of the text) and never lacks energy, keeping the plot moving while staying loyal to the play’s themes of revenge, despair, indecision and so on. (We don’t really need a plot summary, do we?) Still, a few of Duarte’s directorial choices may confuse both those familiar with the play and newbees alike. Although the period setting is obviously modern, the context is otherwise unclear. The show begins with Ophelia, Horatio (Qasim Khan, who spends the play filming other characters with a video camera for some reason) and a few others off to the side with Ash Wednesday-style crosses painted on their faces, smiling and singing Christian songs while Hamlet broods off by himself onstage. The point of this opening was lost on me, and the Anglican motif is never recalled (that I noticed, anyway).
The ghost of King Hamlet (Nashman again) wears a military uniform that’s half-drenched in blood, as if the king had been slain in battle. This doesn’t really make any sense, unless Claudius had used an ear poison on him that caused massive external bleeding. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are replaced by Dr. Rosencrantz (Raechel Fisher), an old friend of Hamlet’s who is now a psychotherapist, whom Claudius and Gertrude hire to analyze Hamlet. Thus follows the standard clichéd setup with Hamlet lying back on a cushion and chatting while Dr. Rosencrantz dutifully takes notes – although there’s one laugh when Hamlet asks, “Is this a free visitation?”, cleverly adapting one of the text’s lines with a different meaning.
But these turn out to be minor complaints in an adaptation that works well overall. Shakespeare purists might object to the massive text cutting, but in some ways, it’s an advantage. It’s startling to realize that the lengthy exchange in which Claudius and Laertes plot against Hamlet’s life in detail is technically unnecessary: here, when the final swordfight comes, it all falls into place without the preparatory exposition.
It’s not a perfect Hamlet, but it is a nice way to spend a summer evening in the park. There will always be occasions to see a more complete and nuanced take on the play, but CanStage still knows how to make Shakespeare seem new and contemporary.
Hamlet runs at the High Park Amphitheatre until September 3.