As the old adage says, “You can’t choose your family.” Fair enough, but that being the case, what’s a disgruntled, ambitious, greedy sibling (husband, wife, et cetera) to do if one of their kin becomes a roadblock? Why kill the impeding bastards, of course!
Without familial carnage, thousands upon thousands of tragedies (real or imagined) likely would never have seen the light of day. How different the world might be if all family members actually respected and got along with one another.
Of course, for Shakespeare, “death within the family” was the grist for his inventive mind, fuelling many of his finest works (frequently well-embellished retellings of more-or-less accurate histories).
To open the 2015 Stratford Festival season, director Antoni Cimolino has crafted a version of the perennial favourite that has much to admire—most intriguingly, which of the characters is maddest of them all?
Setting this tale of revenge unbound in early 1914 provides a wealth of visual resonance to the various Great War anniversaries of the recent past, but doesn’t add much to the telling—the men, most times, wearing suits and morning coats in the royal court, come across more like Bay Street boardroom tycoons than rulers at the seat of power in Elsinore castle.
Curiously—at times maddeningly—Steven Page’s score overwhelms the action and is a nickel short of garish, hardly befitting the drama as it unfolds. No worries, this play is so actor-focussed that any quibbles around the peripheries matter little.
First and foremost is Jonathan Goad in the title role.
Casting him at this juncture seems to be the next logical step in career development at Stratford. With his comedic chops and deft sense of timing aptly demonstrated in The Music Man and dramatic acumen in roles large (Romeo and Juliet) or smaller (Bartholomew Fair)—cross references below, it made nothing but good sense to let Goad loose with this all-consuming role.
Not surprisingly, the purposely humourous bits from the Prince of Whacko kept the full house in stitches; the soliloquies stood in stark contrast (largely delivered in a softer tone that marvellously let the magnificent text speak for itself). And his movement—decked out in perpetual mourning black and charcoal—kept the thrust stage alive no matter who his partners were and whether brandishing a foil or holding a skull.
Providing exceptional comic relief in the early going and parental devotion throughout (including tough love spying: the equivalent of surreptiously reading a child’s email these days), Tom Rooney hit another one out of the theatre as Polonius. Son Laertes, (Mike Shara releasing a wave of heartfelt tears while bemoaning the inadvertent execution of his pious, if wily, father was a showstopper), seemed the exception in truly loving his dad while daughter Ophelia (Adrienne Gould’s descent to the dark side was troubling—given the headlines surrounding suicide almost daily in the 21st century), yet convincingly reinforced the much-wanted notion that some parents are valued and revered by their progeny.
Radiant in red (the ideal colour for this barely two-month-in-the-grave merry widow), Seana McKenna artfully managed to maintain Gertrude’s fine balance of loving both her new husband (aka former husband’s brother) and brooding son.
Tim Campbell’s Horatio was all business, curiously reinforcing the unintended corporate aura.
Rosencrantz (Sanjay Talwar) and Guildenstern (Steve Ross) proved to be the ideal counterweight to Hamlet, especially in the “I am easier to be played on than a pipe” scene.
The play-within-the-play troupe was ably led by Juan Chioran, while Robert King’s engaging graveside manner was ideally employed.
As good as all of that was, Geraint Wyn Davies (doing double duty as The Ghost, with a few wardrobe-covered microphone misfires marring the spooky result) ended up stealing the show with his portrayal of Claudius: truly the maddest from a very disturbed lot of relatives and friends. No real pretense of funny moments from the veteran actor, just straight ahead—at times compellingly introspective—declamations from the epitome of evil incarnate. Sadly, that cold, calculating power-at-any-cost continues to play out daily on stages worldwide.
Given Wyn Davies’ stellar performance, few might complain if this production were renamed Claudius. JWR