It is a season of Hamlets. For the past two weeks at Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theatre Centre, Eric Schneider has starred in the last production by the MTC’S controversial outgoing artistic director, James Roy, portraying the brooding Dane as a man overwhelmed by the intrigues around him. Meanwhile, Kevin Kline plays a swashbuckling prince in a critically acclaimed off-Broadway production. The Stratford Festival will launch its version, starring Brent Carver, in May. And last week director Guy Sprung brought Hamlet to the Toronto Free Theatre with R.H. Thomson, arguably the leading Canadian actor of the times.
Sprung’s lean, modern, melodramatic version of the play is set in a 19thcentury Denmark ruled by a military clique. While King Claudius (Dan Macdonald) and his supporters wear medal-laden uniforms, Hamlet haunts the court in stylish mourning clothes planning revenge against his uncle, Claudius, for the murder of his father, Denmark’s former ruler. Thomson reacts to the oppressive atmosphere around him by becoming densely secretive and controlled. That approach allows him many fine moments, but ultimately he lacks the crazed abandon that makes Hamlet’s eloquent ramblings believable.
In all fairness to Thomson, he is ap-
pearing in a drastically shortened play. To speed up the action, Sprung has cut away large sections of the text, including parts of Hamlet’s long, brooding speeches. Still, Thomson’s unaffected graveyard speech when he finds the skull of the jester, Yorick, is deeply moving. He also wrings a great deal of humor from his part, especially when playing opposite Maurice Evans’s thoroughly pompous but entertaining Polonius.
Meanwhile, Sprung has made Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude (Nonnie Griffin), and his beloved, Ophelia (Sheila McCarthy), passive victims of a thoroughly masculine world. Griffin’s Gertrude displays a wonderful sense of hollow regality that soon crumbles under the pressure of events. And McCarthy gives the evening’s most heartrending performance, turning Ophelia’s difficult mad scene into a virtuoso evocation of horror and pity.
Sprung’s Hamlet dazzles with its momentum and reflections of worldly power, but too often leaves more potent mysteries unexplored. Still, Shakespeare’s masterpiece possesses such depth that even partially successful productions can hold audiences spellbound.
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