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Film Reviews Film of Stratford Festival’s 2015 Hamlet production has no raison d’être

The Stratford Festival’s 2015 production of Hamlet, now appearing on film, lacks a clear purpose.

David Hou

2 out of 4 stars

Title
Hamlet – Stratford Festival HD
Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Antoni Cimolino and Shelagh O’Brien
Starring
Jonathan Goad, Geraint Wyn Davies, Seana McKenna
Genre
Drama
Country
Canada
Language
English
Year
2016

The Stratford Festival's 2015 production of Hamlet, now appearing on film, seems to wander aimlessly through the 20th century and into the present day. King Claudius begins the play wearing a dashing white military uniform and sash as though he were about to lose some minor principality in the First World War, but ends it in a dark business suit while Gertrude changes from regal ball gowns to frumpy little day dresses. The guards who appear at the beginning of the play wear brass-buttoned great coats; the soldiers who appear at the very end are dressed like contemporary shock troops.

Yes, Hamlet's themes persist to this day, but to make Hamlet's agony of grief and indecision speak to an audience, the play needs to be located in a particular time and place. Here, the costumes by designer Teresa Przybylski are mainly confusing, and the production, originally directed for the stage by Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino and starring Jonathan Goad in the title role, lacks a clear purpose.

Perhaps its raison d'être is the film itself: The festival has embarked on a large HD project aimed at the educational market that will eventually include the entire Shakespearean canon, and this Hamlet features the kind of straightforward delivery and solid performances that make the text accessible to students. It is a well-spoken Hamlet; if only it were an illuminating one.

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Making "To be or not to be …" sound like the words of a man who is seriously contemplating suicide, even if only as an intellectual game, is always an uphill battle, and Goad makes no progress there, perhaps because he is such an energetic Hamlet. Bounding about the stage as he pursues his father's ghost or gives the visiting players their assignments, it's hard to imagine him slowing down long enough to answer his own philosophical questions. Goad makes him an angry man, believably alienated from the morally dubious society that surrounds him, and beneath anger there is, of course, pain, which the actor occasionally succeeds in making us feel. It's a performance that creates an approachable image of grief but without much sense of deeper melancholy: This active Hamlet's inaction remains incomprehensible.

Goad is often at his most moving when paired with Adrienne Gould's fragile and naive Ophelia; Cimolino has wisely insisted the pair are visibly in love. She, in turn, is well supported by Mike Shara's fiery Laertes and by Tom Rooney's excellent Polonius, a darkly comic reading of the role that uses the character's pedantry and self-importance as ironic triggers to his disastrous meddling, so that side of the plot is well-served.

Geraint Wyn Davis offers a graciously authoritarian Claudius fawned over by Seana McKenna's very loving Gertrude. Surrounded by supportive courtiers in the historic costumes of the early scenes, this pairing is strong enough that you see some hint of the couple as necessary pillars of order in an uncertain time – whatever the circumstances of the old king's death. Davis toys interestingly with tyranny as the play progresses, but McKenna's performance becomes sadly confused after Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her bedroom, playing out the queen's guilt for one scene and then returning to Claudius as though nothing had happened.

This is a production that has some very good things in it – they also include a thoughtful Horatio from Tim Campbell and Juan Chioran's heartbreaking player king – but lacks a unifying force, and it is neither enlivened nor enlightened by director Shelagh O'Brien transferring it to the cinematic screen.

A Stratford HD production is a record of a stage performance rather than a film in its own right, and the individual productions vary greatly in how well they adapt to the new medium. This time out, the set design barely registers on film, while the appearance of the ghost seems decidedly unspooky.

Of course, the real reason to put Hamlet on film is a lead performance of such penetrating psychology it demands the close-up. At the centre of this seemingly aimless production, Goad's lively but limited interpretation falls short.

Hamlet – Stratford Festival HD screens at select Cineplex theatres April 23 and 28 (cineplex.com/events/stage).

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