It was so hot you could fry a Hamlet on the sidewalk last Saturday, but the show had to go on at the outdoor Kinsmen Amphitheatre on the northern bank of the St. Lawrence River nevertheless – even if that meant the melancholy Dane would provoke mirth at unexpected moments.
"The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold," Lemi Emeruwa, the actor playing Hamlet, said, rubbing his gloved hands together as his character waited with Horatio and Marcellus for the ghost of his father to appear. And the sold-out crowd sweating to Shakespeare roared with laughter.
On William Shakespeare's 450th birthday in April, the Globe Theatre in London, England, launched a touring eight-actor production of Hamlet that, if all goes according to plan, will visit 205 countries over two years.
Last Saturday, it made its sole Canadian stop in a surprising location – Prescott, the small Ontario town that is home to the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. The travelling players performed twice – in the afternoon with Emeruwa as Hamlet, and in the evening with Naeem Hayat in the lead. Then the company took off for shows in New York, the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico and beyond.
Despite it being the hottest day of the year (34 degrees with the humidex), Prescott's casual atmosphere was perfect for a visit from the Globe – which normally plays in an open-air, Elizabethan-style playhouse on the banks of the Thames and specializes in populist productionsthat prune the pretentiousness out of Shakespeare. I ate a hot dog during "to be or not to be" for the first time, and I loved it.
Directors Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst have put together a Hamlet that foregrounds the travelling players who visit Elsinore and therefore fully allows for meta-theatrical moments of levity. It's a clear, swiftly moving production that puts the focus on Hamlet, the play, rather than Hamlet, the actor – and it was refreshing to see a millennial rather than a middle-aged performer playing this overgrown teenager. Emeruwa, straight out of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, brought the recklessness of youth to the part.
He was in a solid company, although the only player who stood out for me as exceptional was Maori actor Rawiri Paratene, who injected a pleasing puckishness into Polonius, where you wouldn't expect it, and the gravedigger, where you do. Ultimately, however, the primary appeal of this Hamlet was the sense of event surrounding it, the cheers from an audience that weren't all that different from those that greet marathon runners as they pass by. This Hamlet doubles as a durational piece of performance art, of which Canada only caught a sliver.
The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival was chosen for the honour of hosting the Globe over more prominent theatres in Ontario such as the Stratford Festival and Soulpepper in Toronto. That's one way of putting it. The other is that the St. Lawrence festival was willing to pony up the approximately $56,000 it cost to host this Hamlet for only two performances.
Artistic director Ian Farthing, who is leaving Prescott after nine years this season and will be succeeded by Rona Waddington (currently assisting on Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford), and the board of the festival gambled that it was worth the extra fundraising to shine a light on the work they present each summer in repertory.
One hopes that audiences that welcomed Hamlet will return to see the festival's Canadian-accented Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Farthing and set in the 1920s. This charming production is made truly delightful by the musical direction of Melissa Morris, who has artfully arranged jazz tunes from Summertime to Ain't Misbehaving for a cast of actor-musicians.
The multitalented Morris also stars as a seductive and silver-tongued Silvia – the Milanese beauty who first attracts the attention of Valentine (a charismatic Nathan Carroll) and then his fickle best friend Proteus (Quincy Armorer). Rising Toronto indie star Claire Armstrong is strong, too, as Julia, whom Proteus casts aside for Silvia. It's all very enjoyable until the problematic ending of attempted rape and rash reconciliation crops up; Farthing doesn't seem to have even attempted to solve its issues – leaving Armorer up the St. Lawrence without a paddle as Proteus.
This sour note doesn't drown out the delicious harmonies elsewhere, however. Over the course of two productions I saw, Morris sang and played the bass, organ, accordion, tin flute and clarinet. She also serves as an arresting Ariel in The Tempest, which is receiving a puzzling production from Craig Walker in repertory with Two Gents.
Walker, a professor in Queen's University drama department, sets up the show as a performance by a travelling Southern sideshow troupe led by a "professor" aka Prospero (David Adams). The concept doesn't really evolve, however, leaving the proceedings feeling rather rudderless – even if such colourful sights as giant kewpie dolls are indeed entertaining. Pierre Brault, often seen at the National Arts Centre, is notable as a particularly moving King of Naples, mourning his (seemingly) lost son in a shipwreck.
The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival is part of a huge Canadian summer circuit, stretching from the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival in St. John's (now playing: All's Well that Ends Well) to the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival (now on stage: Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew). The Prescott festival serves its region wellwith Shakespeare, but, to paraphrase Hamlet, if you don't find him here, seek him in one of these other places yourself.