As the audience enters the mainstage tent at Bard on the Beach, Hamlet (Jonathon Young) is lying on the stage. He remains there through the preshow hubbub – asleep or moping or both, overwhelmed with inertia, sharing the stage with slip-covered furniture. After the audience welcome, the action begins: Ophelia (Rachel Cairns) slips onto the stage and into Hamlet's bed (or at least onto the floor next to him). Her presence literally moves him; he is visibly comforted – if only momentarily, before slipping back into his weighty melancholy.
Thus begins director Kim Collier's superb, inventive, exciting production of Hamlet, at Vancouver's Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival this summer.
Collier's silent opening scene has an enormous impact on the production, establishing a solid intimacy between the pair, Ophelia's passion and compassion, and the brightening effect she has on her lover. This makes what is to come all the more powerful – in particular an intense "get thee to a nunnery" exchange between Hamlet and Ophelia. We have seen what was there between them, so we feel its destruction more deeply.
Collier sets her Hamlet in contemporary Denmark, in a sleek white palace with a killer view (Vanier Park and English Bay are gorgeous behind set designer Pam Johnson's sliding glass doors). She gives her royal family (and their friends) technology to play with and consult. Polonius walks around with an iPad; Hamlet plays music and takes photos using his iPhone. Off to the side of the stage, a monitor displays security footage of the palace, or broadcasts CNN-type news footage. This multimedia approach (not surprising given that Collier and Young are two of the founders of the tech envelope-pushing Electric Company Theatre) allows for a most excellent play-within-the-play – created with tiny figures on a tiny set, shot live on an iPhone and projected onto a sheet slung over the glass. Unsettling for Claudius (Bill Dow), and unforgettable for the audience.
The use of technology, however, was at times an annoyance: Young's iPhone button-pushing seemed overly pronounced at times, and that TV monitor was too small for some in the audience to see what was going on in the pictures, never mind read the text on the bottom of the screen. I think the news items may have been related to the events of the play and the action in the palace, but there was no way to tell for certain from my seat.
(Also, a note to the pair of Philistines sitting directly in front of me: The inclusion of the iPhone in this production does not give you permission to check yours throughout the play.)
While the use of technology has been getting much attention, the real star of the show of course is Young himself, who puts in the performance of a lifetime as he sweats through his decline, brought on by the agony of his father's death, his mother's hasty remarriage (to her dead husband's brother), the shocking information – delivered by the ghost of his dead dad – that the death was murder, and his need to avenge the murder.
When I interviewed Young a few weeks ago as rehearsals were just beginning in the tent, he talked about the challenges of tackling such universally well-known material.
"It's so iconic right? It's unavoidable," he said. "You have to acknowledge that and also do everything you can to forget about it. Especially with the soliloquies, which are as equally iconic as Hamlet. Or they are what make Hamlet iconic. They are those famous, famous lines that we know even without knowing them. And then also Hamlet's vibe, his state of being. … He's just become one of those clichés: the melancholy prince."
There is certainly no danger of Young's tour de force performance slipping into anything close to cliché here. He is so raw, so conflicted, so urgent, so on the edge – of madness, of greatness. We see the potential for his Hamlet to be a fine European leader, and we watch, riveted, as his grief, fear and determination weigh him down during an electrifying descent. (He is also terrific as Feste in Bard's other mainstage production this season, Twelfth Night.)
In collaboration with Young and in consultation with experts from the University of British Columbia and Bard on the Beach, Collier has cut the script almost in half, reordering and restructuring some scenes. No characters or subplots were eliminated, and in a first viewing, there were no obvious holes detected. Rather, the tremendous momentum of the first half served as a showcase for Young's acting chops, and his stamina. The second half dragged a touch initially, but picked up toward the bloody conclusion, in particular with a remarkable fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes (a solid Todd Thomson).
Collier's choice to make Horatio a woman (played to perfection by Jennifer Lines) was inspired – adding layers to the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio, while also giving us a strong, rational female character who will not crumble in the face of lust or heartbreak. Collier has also made Rosencrantz (Naomi Wright) and Guildenstern (Craig Erickson) a giddy heterosexual couple, adding some lightness to the weighty story, and contributing to its contemporary sensibility.
Cairns is an excellent Ophelia – a wounded equal as she implores Hamlet to return to his old self. Duncan Fraser is creepiness personified as the ghost of Hamlet's father.
Hamlet runs until Sept. 12.