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Actors perform in the Tarragon Theatre’s version of Hamlet.

Cylla von Tiedemann

1 out of 4 stars

Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Richard Rose
Thomas Ryder Payne
Tarragon Theatre
Runs Until
Sunday, February 11, 2018

The promotional material for the Tarragon Theatre's new production of Hamlet has a horizontal line through its title, as though the play itself is being crossed out. A strikethrough suggests something more delicate than complete erasure – maybe redacted information or a change of thought. Not only does this typographic detail play elegantly on key Hamlet themes (death, identity, the impossibility of certainty), but it also felt like a clue to the production's vision – a rock and roll reimagining of the Shakespearean classic keen on some kind of essential refutation.

Instead, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what this three-hour production was set on doing if, in fact, anyone on the creative team thought an organizing principle might be a good place to start. The production felt like a kind of protracted conceptual chaos in which very basic questions about what world the action inhabited and how it related to the music (or the audience) hadn't been asked, let alone resolved.

Is this a rock-opera? Not really. Music director Thomas Ryder Payne hasn't actually written that much music. With the exception of the performance sequences that Shakespeare writes himself, the rock and roll consisted mostly of loud musical accompaniment to the text. The band – a large drum-set, a keyboard, a couple of guitars – takes up a substantial portion of the available space, so that the actors are limited to a strip downstage with standing microphones. Speaking into these microphones like the frontmen (and women) of the band implies that the characters are performers in a show within a show. But this structural complexity isn't accounted for in any satisfying way; the device only ends up limiting the actors' ability to make eye contact and respond to each other – namely, to do much in the way of actually acting.

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Every now and then, I caught a glimpse of a phantom play in which rock and roll might tell us something new about Hamlet. As the title character, Noah Reid is dressed like a Parkdale hipster and, when he wasn't completely overwhelmed by background noise, he brought an unaffected freshness to the text. The famous Act One soliloquy – How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/seem to me all the uses of this world – sounded like timely millennial grievances. Similarly, Brandon McGibbon made Laertes into something of a soft-spoken Rufus Wainwright, clutching an acoustic guitar as he warned his sister about the ephemerality of young love. As the Player Queen, Beau Dixon performs a very funny death-metal re-enactment of King Hamlet's murder. In these moments, there was a glimmer of conceptual cohesion, a constructive fusing of Shakespeare's text and our own world.

Otherwise, it was hard to make sense of the aesthetic disorder on stage, not to mention where and why all of it was happening. So many fundamental dramaturgical questions feel unanswered. If Hamlet is meant to look like he's a millennial from 2018, and drinks a tall can of beer in one scene, why does he have a sword fight with Laertes in another? Given the world director Richard Rose has (or hasn't) created, how does Hamlet even know how to use a sword? Does this suggest that there's something performative and self-conscious about the whole exercise and, if so, why isn't that conceit clearly and actively defined?

Why are Rosencrantz (Rachel Cairns) and Guildenstern (Jesse LaVercombe), Hamlet's buddies from childhood, dressed in disco-era, three-piece suits? Why is Claudius (Nigel Shawn Williams) dressed like a Second World War general and Horatio (Greg Gale) like a medieval priest? Why does the professorial Polonius (Cliff Saunders in a tailcoat and two-toned shoes) seem to have stepped off the set of Downton Abbey while his daughter, Ophelia (Tiffany Ayalik), is wearing a short, modern dress? The set itself is such a literal mess – chairs, microphones and instruments arranged haphazardly – that it's actually unpleasant to look at. I wanted to get up there and tidy up.

Since Shakespeare's play is performed with few cuts, the actors' facility with the language is crucial, but the text often doesn't land because of poor diction and inadequate breath support. These are pretty amateur mistakes for a theatre of the Tarragon's reputation, and I can't fault the actors so much as the way their skills have been misused. When Reid is hands-on with Ayalik in the famous get-thee-to-a-nunnery scene, I found myself drawn emotionally into the action and suddenly remembering that the people I was watching were actually meant to have history and relationships. Most of the time, they seemed disconnected from each other, focused on trying to get their lines out over the sound.

Watching Rose's reimagining of Hamlet, I couldn't help but think of a production of the play I saw just over a year ago at Native Earth Performing Arts/Aluna Theatre's Rutas Panamericas festival in Toronto. A tiny company from Bolivia created a striking bare-bones production that poetically distilled what they thought made Hamlet still relevant: corruption, father-worship, Oedipal fixations. Their resources were minimal, but they created a streamlined and powerful world where they could refurbish an old story.

But elsewhere, something is off in the state of Denmark.

Hamlet continues at the Tarragon Theatre until Feb. 11.

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