Ravi Jain’s re-imagined production of Hamlet was most recently in Toronto at Canadian Stage Company as part of the 2019 remount that is touring Canada,. I missed the 2018 production, so am not certain how the move to the high ceiling, raw space of the Berkeley Street Theatre informed the show, however I did find that for the most part, the production seemed “at home” in this space, making use of unconventional entrances and highlighting the gorgeous exposed brick.
For me, the production was strongest in the moments when it employed ASL, with Horatio speaking entirely in ASL, and characters, notably Hamlet, communicating at times using ASL as well. The dramaturgical choices of when to have sound, and when to have silent language only were highly informed — they highlighted Hamlet’s struggle to be understood, and that Horatio was the only person truly listening and engaging with Hamlet, while everyone else writes Hamlet off as childish.
I have thought for some time about the value of swapping gender roles in this script. Given the role mental illness plays in the relationships to the characters, and the difference in the way Hamlet is managed (“buck up” and “get over it” so to speak) versus Ophelia, who is pitied and mourned, there is much to learn from swapping the genders. That said, this production opted to make Hamlet played by a female, but otherwise quite androgynous, while Ophelia’s movements and gestures were quite stereotypically feminine. I wonder whether different choices may have opened up more about these two characters.
Other parts of the production felt uneven in the performance; everything to look at was beautiful, including the detailed choreography and pictures on the stage, however the spoken text was not uniform…some actors shouted too much while others mumbled too much. In a production where the language (verbal or otherwise) is the main focal point, this was challenging for me. I struggled to reconcile how it may have been a specific choice, but have been unable to do so.
That said, Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Barbara Gordon (Polonius) in particular were SUBLIME. There was a moment where I had managed to forget Polonius dies so early in the play, and then was deeply saddened that Gordon’s time on the stage was going to be cut short. Such was the strength of her performance!
What i found really interesting was the similarity of images to other productions of Hamlet I’ve seen, notably Ostermeier’s Schaubühne production from a few years back — from the piles of mud, to the audience reflection (mirrors here, video screens for Ostermeier), to the graphic depiction of sexual acts and the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius. It was a stunning reminder of the images and questions that exist deep within the play, and our larger cultural relationship to these characters and this story...and a humbling reminder to me that as a director, any new idea you think of is probably not new.
This is, in many ways, some of the most exciting Shakespeare I’ve seen in Canada. While I have some quibbles, this is of course in reference to the work I’ve seen and the (rather absurd) amount of time I spend thinking about these things. In no way does that detract from the overall excellent quality of the interpretation and production as a whole.