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Hamlet: rock and roll attitude meets Shakespeare's prose - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto

Hamlet: rock and roll attitude meets Shakespeare's prose
11 January 2017

by Drew Rowsome
- Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

This Hamlet is retitled Hamlet and is billed as "reimagined through the powerful lens of rock and roll." As intriguing as that sounds - I was imagining either a Hamlet peppered with rock and roll songs, or set to a rock and roll score, or set in a rock and roll milieu - it is slightly deceptive. The cast all play instruments and sing, and there is a drum kit on stage that is used frequently, but the music is used mainly as an underscore. There is occasional loud, and very effective, rock and roll punctuation, but mostly it drives the iambic pentameter with an effect closer to rap or spoken word.

It turns out that Hamlet with a live score is a very clever idea. The underscore not only emphasizes mood and keeps the action at a steady pace (Hamlet is a very long play but feels less so when there is a beat) but also elucidates the text. Claudius (Nigel Shawn Williams) is a slick bandleader who conducts with the panache of a Vegas showman or a James Brown, his character in this context is crystal clear. Brandon McGibbon, whose musical chops got a full workout in Midsummer (a play with songs), turns Laertes into a punk with an Iggy Pop shout and snarl. Cliff Saunders who is a supercilious hilarious bureaucrat of a Polonius, doubles as a Beatlesque British music hall song and dance comedian of a Gravedigger.

The microphones, smoothly co-ordinated, become characters of their own with effects emphasizing character traits or heightened emotions. They also add an extra layer with Polonius doing literal stand-up and Claudius transforming into a talk show host - the microphones show how a dysfunctional family in the public eye turns into reality TV horror show. Noah Reid (Schitt's Creek) wields his microphone like a weapon. He aspires to be an Eminem or DMX in an artfully torn hoodie, but his pampered manchild persona turns his rage into madness. Or does it? This Hamlet never lets us know what is real and what is affected image.

Reid's Hamlet is prone to adolescent tantrums. He is also extremely conversational and, as with the rest of the cast, that goes a long way in translating the Shakespearean text. The big speeches, the gold medal for actors to strive for, sit easily and fluently: "To be or not to be" is sotto voce and unmiked but precisely delivered; "What a piece of work is man" needed only Galt MacDermot's melody to become gorgeous; and the instructions to the players became a brief satire on creating theatre and bad acting. It is not a flashy Hamlet but it is precisely calibrated to appear casual and familiar.

The ensemble does double, sometimes triple duty, while also making music. Beau Dixon, Greg Gale (KissThe CrackwalkerHis Greatness), Jack Nicholsen, Rachel Cairns and Jesse Lavercombe, all move seamlessly from background musician to centre stage to foil. The row of microphones on stands evoke the image of back-up singers, but the microphones switch from hand to hand, character to character, blurring the line between front person and harmonizing. If not for her gorgeous clear soprano, Tiffany Ayalik's Ophelia would be a Stevie Nicks homage, there is steel in the fragility that shines through. Only Tantoo Cardinal's Gertrude initially jars with a deliberateness to the line readings and movements that over-emphasize and undercut a natural regalness. But it is intentional, Gertrude gets a character motivation that is spot-on, contemporary and a nice fix for one of Shakespeare's looser ends.

Hours later, I am still mulling how the music - credited to Thomas Ryder Payne and ensemble - dug so deeply into the text and illuminated it with such deceptive ease. The "rock and roll" is more in the attitude than the execution: a Lou Reed simmering bass line, design and lighting effectively quoting from Bowie's Station to Station tour, metal posturing choreography, and especially a delving into extreme emotions in a way that can usually only be accomplished with loud guitars. Director Richard Rose (An Enemy of the PeopleWormwood) and a very able cast, take an ancient and well-trodden text and, with the addition of a modern idiom and a rigorously intellectual analysis, make it lucidly lyrical, relatable, and ultimately sturm und drang tragic.

Hamlet runs 'til Sun, Feb 11 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. tarragontheatre.com

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