William Shakespeare
Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival Theatre

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Amaka Umeh Credit: David Hou
Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty Credit: David Hou
Amaka Umeh and Matthew Kabwe Credit: David Hou

As this racy, modern version of Hamlet demonstrates, Stratford Festival in Ontario is still the go-to location for high quality Shakespearean productions. Director Peter Pasyk’s vision of what many believe to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy and greatest play can be unconventional but is always satisfying.

To start with, he updates the drama to the 21st century, incorporating technology and modern themes, for example bringing in guns and electronic tags and quite possibly introducing the first occasion on which Hamlet sexts his beloved Ophelia. The director does so not only on the same thrust stage but also utilising many of the actors who starred in the Stratford Festival production of Death and the King’s Horseman.

The other major development, fitting in with modern trends, is the introduction of Amaka Umeh as the first black actor (and female to boot) to play Hamlet at the Stratford Festival. As such, this film has been released to coincide with Black History Month.

From a dramatic opening, with the late King lying in state, enhanced by bold lighting work designed by Kimberly Purtell, who deserves awards for her contribution throughout, the pace never lets up through a breathless two and three-quarter hours.

The production has been built around the remarkable skills of Amaka Umeh, who instantly inhabits the role, making every viewer colour- and gender-blind from the outset. This actor is remarkably expressive, always wearing her highly volatile and emotional character’s heart on her (or is that his?) sleeve and conveying almost as much with body language as Shakespeare’s words. In addition, she has the kind of stage presence that won’t always be popular with fellow actors, who inevitably regress into the shadows in her company.

Pasyk is bold, sometimes changing the text in minor ways as well as cutting it but also introducing odd moments from other Shakespeare plays, never to the detriment of the spirit of this one.

Supporting the leading performer, Andrea Rankin is an often-bemused Ophelia, baffled by Hamlet’s feigned madness as much as is her father, Michael Spencer-Davies proving to be a particularly lugubrious Polonius.

Remaining in that generation, Graham Abbey and Maev Beaty, also a couple in Death and the King’s Horseman, work well together, the former portraying Claudius as not only evil but lacking in hubris, his Gertrude sympathetic to her son and big on feelings.

Strong emotions also overpower Austin Eckert’s Laertes following the discovery of a series of familial bereavements, while comedy is largely restricted to Hamlet at his most cynical and Matthew Kabwe in his role as the jauntily bespectacled Gravedigger, which he contrastingly doubles with a sober, corporeal Ghost of King Hamlet.

This is far from a traditional rendering of a familiar play, Peter Pasyk having clearly worked extremely hard to interpret the text and expertly bring out every nuance at the same time as making it highly accessible to a modern audience. Judging by the reactions of those in the theatre at the performance recorded in October 2022, as well as this reviewer, he has done so with great success.

Hamlet is available via the StratFest@Home web site as part of the Festival’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Subscriptions cost $10 a month and allow access to a wide back catalogue as well as six productions from the recent season, appearing gradually through the early part of 2023.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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