While Hamlet has always enthralled theatregoers over the years with its compelling look at life, death and betrayal, this year’s enticing version in modern dress opening the Stratford Festival Thursday night offers a genuine bonus, bringing to the stage a uniquely daring protagonist.
The moment Amaka Umeh, bravely launches into Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 unleashing shades of both his reflective and volatile nature, director Peter Pasyk clearly demonstrates what he believes the tale is about, putting “our own mortality into stark focus.”
O that this too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
As the first black female actor to portray the troubled Prince of Denmark at Stratford, Umeh gives a brilliantly captivating performance throughout the production comprised of equal parts vigorous, uncontrolled physicality, strangely mixed with solace and contemplation.
The modern attire alongside set designer Patrick Lavender’s eerily foggy landscapes and indoor scenes inhabited by shady silhouettes, shadows and true characters reflected in mirrors above centre stage enhances Shakespeare’s centuries old tale of madness, love and life.
Without ever straying away from the Bard’s storyline, the audience is treated to the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, a frightening image brought to life with regal force by Mathew Kabwe, telling young Hamlet he was murdered by his brother Claudius (Graham Abbey) who marries his wife, Gertrude (Maev Beaty).
Aided by a uniformly strong cast and the sure, steady hand of director Pasyk, Umeh moves passionately with vibrancy through the ever-changing Hamlet’s mental stages from a slow-to-action thinker to the rash and impulsive character who inadvertently kills Polonius (Michael Spencer-Davis).
Although a lengthy production, scenes are never devoid of action, whether of mind, body or spirit, showcased by solid performances by Abbey as the calculating, ambitious Claudius; Beaty stepping up as the oft-time shallow wife; Spencer-Davis’s pompous, old conniver Polonius; Andrea Rankin showing the ill-fated Ophelia’s dependency on men and with nice touches from Norman Yeung and Ijeoma Emesowum as Hamlet’s bumbling change-of-the-weather former friends and now regal informants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In a sequence that would make Errol Flynn grin with sheer delight, fight captain Tyrone Savage and crew add some flashy swordplay between Hamlet and Laertes, played in fine form by Austin Eckert as the passionate, avenging foil to the prince.
To be or not to be may be Hamlet’s question to ponder. For the audience it’s more to go or not to go and the answer is rather obvious – seek out tickets immediately.
This magnificent five-star production, appropriately dedicated to Christopher Plummer – who played the title role in 1957 and Brent Carver, playing the Danish prince in 1986 in both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – continues at the Festival Theatre until October 28.