- Title: Prince Hamlet
- Written by: William Shakespeare
- Directed and adapted by: Ravi Jain
- ASL and visual translation by: Dawn Jani Birley
- Actors: Dawn Jani Birley, Christine Horne
- Company: Why Not presented by Canadian Stage
- Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to Feb. 24, 2019
Prince Hamlet, from Why Not Theatre, is back on stage in Toronto at Canadian Stage as part of a national tour – and director Ravi Jain’s unique take on the well-worn Shakespearean tragedy has deepened with time.
Hamlet normally ends with Horatio about to, essentially, retell the whole story of the play to Prince Fortinbras and a couple of ambassadors from England who have arrived at the Danish court to discover that everyone, except Osric, is dead.
This is where Jain’s production chooses to begin instead. “The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,” say the astonished English ambassadors at the sight of the pile of corpses.
Horatio, who is played as deaf by a deaf actor named Dawn Jani Birley, does not take offence; instead, she launches into a vivid and emotionally resonant retelling of the tragedy, remaining on stage throughout the show, as Shakespeare’s play itself appears as if in flashback.
When I saw Prince Hamlet the first time, I was captivated primarily by Birley’s performance, which is astonishing and deserves the awards it has won. She doesn’t just provide ASL interpretation; she acts out a parallel, one-person Hamlet with her whole body.
I was as moved as much a second time by the way Birley physically depicts Ophelia’s death by drowning – bending backwards and drawing bubbles above her mouth in the air that slowly get smaller and then disappear.
In this viewing, I also noticed how much humour Birley adds in telling the story alongside the actors showing it to us. Sometimes, when Polonius (Barbara Gordon, a new addition to the cast) is speaking, she simply stops interpreting the words and makes the universally understood sign of someone babbling on: Rolled eyes and a hand turned into a mouth, opening and shutting, ad nauseam.
On this return visit to Prince Hamlet, however, I was able to look beyond Birley’s attention-grabbing performance – and focus more on Christine Horne’s bravely unlikeable performance as Hamlet. It has become more textured since 2017.
Perhaps paradoxically, because Horne is a woman, her performance makes you think more deeply about the brand of masculinity that her character embodies.
Hamlet is – there’s no other word for it – toxic. He is grieving his father, and has a legitimate grievance against his uncle Claudius, but he uses all this as an excuse to sink into self-pity and bully the people around him, especially the women.
With her long, straight hair tucked behind her ears, in a baggy, black, long-sleeved shirt, Horne looks like some sort of cross between Iggy Pop and Kurt Cobain – and her portrayal alternates between the anarchistic energy of the one and the nineties angst of the other.
What distinguishes her Hamlet from a rock star, however, is his complete asexuality – or, perhaps, curdled sexuality.
This melancholy Dane only chastely kisses Ophelia on the forehead, like a sister – and yet is absolutely obsessed with sex in the abstract, particularly the dirty deeds which he imagines Claudius to be committing with his mother Gertrude.
The word “incel” comes to mind in the way his anxieties and inadequacies ultimately manifest as misogyny. “Get thee to a nunnery” – the only thing that would make this line seem more like an online taunt by a troll would be a Pepe the Frog gif.
Horne’s Hamlet is most in his zone when he is mocking others to disguise his self-loathing – and yet, there were times when instead of just judging the character, I was pulled onto his wavelength. “To be or not to be” hit me in an unusual place, that long list of the so-called whips and scorns of time, like “the law’s delay” and “the insolence of office” and particularly “the proud man’s contumely.” I feel you, Hamlet; who doesn’t?
Another of the gender-bending performances in this nine-actor production that has increased in power is Jeff Ho’s; there’s something in his Ophelia’s angry mourning of her father that makes her often cringeworthy mad scene really work here. Instead of passing out rosemary, pansies and fennel, Ophelia grabs fistfuls of soil and throws them at Claudius, Gertrude and her brother, Laertes.
I finally grasped the meaning of the piles of dirt that make up Lorenzo Savoini’s set. These are the mounds of soil that the gravedigger has dug out of the ground to make graves for each of the characters who die. It deepened my appreciation for the past-tense throb of Jain’s production – which moves to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre next – looking at it as Horatio does here, a second time around.