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theatre review

A scene from Stratford’s production of Hamlet.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

For a minute, this Hamlet is captivating, and original.

Early on in director Antoni Cimolino's production that opened the Stratford Festival's 63rd season on Monday, the Danish prince is hot on the heels of his father's ghost, chasing reflections through a graveyard outside the castle of Elsinore.

Designer Teresa Przybylski's striking set pieces – a series of black, blank tombstones of various heights, seemingly waiting to be engraved with the names of those who die over the course of the play – are pushed together to form a mountain at the centre of the Festival Theatre's thrust stage. Jonathan Goad's athletic Hamlet bounds up these blocks, climbing higher and higher, and when he runs out of blocks to climb, he stretches his arms up toward the sky trying to get closer to his father in heaven.

Here's a Hamlet we haven't seen, an athlete who leaps before he looks – the opposite of the master of inaction to which we are accustomed. But, of course, the ghost of Hamlet's father isn't to be found up above – but down below, and there he appears shining a light up at his son's face, who is suddenly caught like a deer in the headlights of the horrible truth careening toward him.

This was my favourite moment in Cimolino's production – and also the last moment where it, Goad's performance as Hamlet and Przybylski's design really came together as a satisfying whole. Otherwise, this Hamlet is a curiously disjointed one, populated by characters who are ablaze one second, then blithe the next – and who often don't seem to really remember what happened in the scene immediately before.

The entire production suffers from a lack of clear definition or trajectory – with Goad standing shrugging at the centre of it. His Hamlet is poetry when in motion, it's true – dashing on and off the stage, like an overgrown boy unsure what he's running to or from. But when the actor stops to deliver one of his six (or seven) famous soliloquies, the play's momentum stops too. Each begins with a dramatic pause – and, as such, they come off as a series of audition pieces, rather than stepping stones on a path.

Goad's Hamlet grapples to find the arguments in the monologues – and overcompensates for this lack of intellectual fire by overdoing the outward flourishes. He falls to the ground theatrically when he wishes that his too too solid flesh would melt – or suffers a heart attack that sends him sprawling after the ghost departs.

This is a Hamlet whose sanity you never seriously question – his mad act is a bad hair day and misbuttoned shirt. Instead, it's his grief, his melancholy and his suicidal thoughts that come off as contrived. Goad frowns extravagantly, and slants his bushy eyebrows until they are almost vertical, and makes his voice waver, but he's like a spotty WiFi signal that only connects for a second at a time. (Indeed, in an oh-too-brief attempt at direct address – "I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play … [raised eyebrow]" – the audience seemed stunned, as if to say: Oh, have you been talking to us?)

This is not Goad's problem alone. There's a mechanical nature to Cimolino's production, most obviously apparent in the robotic reactions of the ensemble in the group scenes. Even Cimolino's best ideas – having Ophelia sing what will become her mad song with Polonius early on, or having Claudius pulled on stage by the Players for audience participation in a murder scene – are marred by poor execution. Adrienne Gould's Ophelia places her violin under her chin, looking like she's been asked to swallow a fish, while Geraint Wyn Davies's Claudius is blasé about an audacious provocation until the script demands he isn't.

Thank goodness for Tom Rooney's Polonius, full of light and love, the only character you care for here. He gets every laugh possible in what is, otherwise, the least funny production of Hamlet I've ever seen.

What else registers? The unrequited love of Tim Campbell's Horatio; the teenage sexuality of Seana McKenna's Gertrude, who makes out with Claudius at every possible moment; the twisted sexuality of Ophelia, repressed, then let loose in her mad scene, a daring moment from Gould.

And yet, even this Ophelia is not quite as memorable as the Ophelia that Gould played opposite Ben Carlson's Hamlet on the same stage in 2008. Indeed, her (diminished) return invites comparisons to that memorable production. So, too, in a way does the casting of Goad – of the same generation as Carlson, but brawny where the latter was brainy.

A dumb-jock Hamlet would be an interesting twist – but Goad's performance, like Cimolino's production, doesn't seem to have that or any other central idea guiding it.