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Amaka Umeh as Hamlet in Hamlet at the Stratford Festival 2022.David Hou

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  • Title: Hamlet
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Peter Pasyk
  • Actors: Amaka Umeh, Michael Spencer-Davis
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to October 28, 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks required until at least June 21; reduced-capacity performances available.

Hamlet has, at times, been called the world’s longest knock-knock joke. “Who’s there?” cries Barnardo, a guard at Elsinore castle, in the first line of the show.

That reductive description is a joke itself – but it came to mind while watching director Peter Pasyk’s lively and entertaining modern-dress production of the play, which kicked off the Stratford Festival’s comeback season on Thursday evening.

It sets its tone with a very funny gag involving Elsinore’s guards – and goes on to elicit laughs more often and deeper into the play than usual; rarely has Hamlet tipped closer to the comic side of tragicomedy, felt so packed with punchlines and edgy stand-up routines.

Hamlet himself, played by Amaka Umeh, is the first I’ve ever encountered to get a big LOL when he tells his fair-weather friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth.”

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Michael Spencer-Davis as Polonius.David Hou

This is one of the many lines the actress curls upward at the end – into mocking sarcasm, or irritated irony. (She is the first woman to play the part at Stratford, but the sex of Shakespeare’s character remains unchanged.)

Umeh’s Hamlet pushes the buttons of his uncle Claudius (Graham Abbey), and mother Gertrude (Maev Beaty) in an impish manner that brought to mind Chris Rock at times; he chirps everyone around him and gets away with it for a very long time because he’s mourning his father, the late king. When he finally gets a slap from Andrea Rankin’s Ophelia, however, there’s no question this man-child deserves it.

When Umeh’s Hamlet later picks up Yorick’s skull in the graveyard and marvels at his “infinite jest,” it’s like he’s talking about a role model; this prince grew up to be a court jester and can’t quite move beyond that role.

This is a youthful Hamlet, an element of drama queen in the way he sweeps through space and saws the air with his arms to punctuate his rants (adding more irony, again, to his speech to the Players in which he professes to deplore such melodramatic movements). The fear is that he will harm himself impulsively in a moment when words and energy dry up, rather than at the end of any of the monologues that are his stepping stones through the play. “Melancholy Dane” seems a misnomer – Umeh’s take is bipolar, deep funks, high-pitched highs.

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Andrea Rankin as Ophelia.David Hou

With a Hamlet like this, Polonius must go even bigger to register as the comic relief he sometimes is. Michael-Spencer-Davis’s first appearance in the role, delivering a rather earnest lecture to his children, Laertes and Ophelia, is an anomaly; he’s downright hilarious as he gets in his cups, cracking up the audience in places both expected and unexpected, a master at portraying obliviousness.

Pasyk’s production takes place in our time, its characters carrying revolvers (too sexily for my taste), smartphones and vapes – and always looking very hip in trim-cut suits and jumpsuits in designer Michelle Bohn’s genuinely fashionable costumes. (An amusing contemporary touch: Matthew Kabwe’s charming gravedigger, shirtless, has a skull tattoo on his chest.)

Visuals aside, however, Pasyk leaves most of his playing around with the play until after intermission. He shuffles some dialogue over to Polonius and Gertrude in a way that robs them of plausible deniability and makes them see what is rotten in the state of Denmark as clearly as Hamlet.

Even Claudius confesses his regicide/fratricide to someone else besides God and seems a candidate for redemption as a result; Abbey is wonderful in the part, avoiding all the clichés of the character.

I liked these surprising changes but they do make Hamlet, never exactly a likeable character, seem more frustrating than ever: He might actually be able to get the accountability he seeks, if he could just take a little more responsibility for his own actions. I wished Umeh’s performance – so full of bravado – had found a few moments of vulnerability to rebalance our sympathies.

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Amaka Umeh, right, as Hamlet with Matthew Kabwe as the Ghost of King Hamlet.Jordy Clarke

Indeed, it’s in the younger generation where Pasyk’s production seems tentative. Rankin’s Ophelia has some striking moments early in the play, but her unravelling is unconvincing. Her relationship with Hamlet is as puzzling as ever, while the connections between the prince and Horatio or Laertes are not deeply felt.

In an attempt to divert the tone postintermission from what’s been established, Pasyk tilts away from comedy toward horror – letting Ophelia be the one who finds Polonius’s body and then bathing her in red light and smothering her scream with Bernard Herrmann-esque sound design. It’s hard to tell how camp this is meant to be.

With Umeh in the lead role – she’s not just the first female actor, but the first Black one to play Hamlet in Stratford – this production naturally stands out from past ones in Stratford, Ont. The confidence and freshness of her performance and, indeed, Pasyk’s take on the material make it stand out beyond this catch-up casting.

Shakespeare’s play, however, feels as knotty and full of hard-to-resolve elements as ever here. Of course, that is part of its appeal and why we keep knock knock knocking on its door, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.

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