Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0061. Wednesday, 1 February 1995.
From:           Christine Mack Gordon <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 31 Jan 95 16:15:57 -0500
Subject:        Hamlet in Winnipeg
Well, fellow Shakespeareans, I had an absolutely transcendent experience in
Winnipeg. I loved the city, its museums, restaurants, and people. I had a
wonderful time with the busload of Twin Cities folks (and one North Carolinan)
with whom I travelled. And the play was magnificent.
I've seen numerous filmed Hamlets (Burton, Olivier, Gibson, Kline, Jacobi) and
a few on stage, but I've never seen a production that worked as successfully as
this one. From the magnificent pre-show to the enthralling and exciting
conclusion, it was a riveting experience. As far as I could tell (I haven't
gone back to the text to check), it was also one of the most complete *Hamlet*
productions I have seen. I was only occasionally aware of missing lines while I
was watching it, and I didn't note _any_ missing scenes (though there may have
been some). I thought the cast was excellent overall, although I was
disappointed by Liisa Repo-Martell, who played Ophelia (this tended to be true
of most of the people I talked with). She simply didn't seem to have a clear
insight into her character, and although she was somewhat better in the nunnery
and the mad scenes than she was earlier, she still didn't quite pull it off.
Claudius (Stephen Russell), Polonius (Robert Benson), Gertrude (Louisa Martin),
and the Ghost/Player King (Gary Reineke) were superb. I thought all the smaller
supporting roles were excellent as well, especially Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern (Roger Honeywell and Richard Hughes) and the two gravediggers
(sorry, I lost the inserted slip that had their names). Laertes (Andrew Akman)
was OK, as was Horatio (Donald Carrier), although I'm especially picky about
the latter since it's a part for which I feel a certain affinity, having played
it in high school some thirty years ago.
And then there was Hamlet. (Caveat: I _like_ Keanu Reeves. I first saw him in
*My Own Private Idaho* and was sufficiently impressed to go out and rent all
his earlier films.) I thought he was splendid: from the controlled, tormented,
long-haired prince of the opening scenes to the shorn and bedraggled madman to
the betrayed lover and son to the resigned avenger, I thought he played a
remarkable number of variable tunes on his instrument. Others considered the
comic and active scenes more successful, but I think that's because they are
comic and more active. I do think the soliloquies were not all they might have
been, though I think that has as much to do with the director's choices as with
the actor's. They were delivered, for the most part, from a single spot with
little or no movement--and that didn't work well. But there were moments in all
four soliloquies that came alive for me in new ways, even in "To be or not to
be," which I thought the least successful. Mr. Reeves's reading of certain
lines gave me a whole new sense of the speech and Hamlet's thinking at the
moment. I thought the nunnery scene was successful, with Hamlet attentive and
concerned intially and then angry and outraged, and then (momentarily)
distraught and appalled. The closet scene was also wonderful. He murdered
Polonius not with a rapier but much more deliberately with a dagger (though he
still couldn't see who it was) and his interaction with his mother ranged from
almost comic intially to full-blown rage to despair. Their contract was sealed
with a mutual, but amazingly non-erotic, kiss (very unlike Oliver or Gibson).
The scenes throughout with R & G were played for comedy, but comedy with a
clear edge; we always knew that Hamlet was wary and watching. When they escort
him in to see Claudius after the murder of Polonius, his hands were covered
with blood and he very deliberately licked one of his fingers: a horrifying but
apt touch. And the entire final sequence was exquisite: the graveyard scene
both funny and moving. Hamlet and the gravedigger _sang_ the lines
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw.
--something I'd never seen done and which moved me in ways that I am still not
able to articulate. The final sequence was brilliantely staged--the fight one
of the best I've seen: again, it combined some nice comic touches with a true
fierceness. And when Hamlet murders Claudius, he first stabs him with the
tainted sword, then forces the remaining drink down his throat, _then_ slits
his throat with his dagger. Once he got to this moment, he wasn't taking any
chances. He uses the last of his energy to prevent Horatio's suicide, then
takes his rightful place in the throne, grasps the hand of his dead mother, and
dies. Horatio's "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to
thy rest" was the play's final line.
The physical production: set, costumes, lighting all worked beautifully. The
set had a heavy, dark medieval feel; a stained glass window above the second
level changed to show various scenes (I'm sure of a virgin and child--this is
the one Hamlet destroys by throwing his sword through it after he comes upon
Claudius praying and elects not to kill him; one was an angel, I think; but
there were one or two others. I couldn't see the window well because we had
seats in the first row[!]). The costumes were what I guess I would call
modified Elizabethan; lots of deep, rich colors.
The other remarkable thing about this production is that it absolutely sang:
none of this attitude that "this is a sacred text, and we must slow down so the
poor beknighted audience can understand every single word." They spoke as if
they were speaking and it came through beautifully. My spouse, who says it
usually takes him a full half-hour to get into the swing of the language says
he was with it right from the start, and none of the younger people (we had
some middle and high school kids with us) had problems. I thought the language
overall, including the verse, was handled beautifully.
Something about the interpretation (and, again, I'm still musing on this)
captured both a particular essence of Hamlet the character that I haven't seen
before, and conveyed a very contemporary sense of the play. I only wish I could
have seen it again, and I sincerely hope that despite the $7 million film
offers Keanu Reeves will take on more Shakespeare in the future.
Chris Gordon
University of Minnesota

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