Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sublime Bard on the Beach (and Butoh)

In Kim Collier's digital-age Hamlet, part of this year's Bard on the Beach season, Jonathon Young gives a towering performance (deeply intelligent, refreshingly physical, intensely feeling) as the young prince interrupted, a rich West Van postgrad genuinely flummoxed by his father's sudden death and perhaps even more unmoored by his mother's quick remarriage. This is telegraphed in a wordless opening scene Collier inserts even before the curtain speech, with a tousled, barefoot Hamlet alone in the sleekly modern, all-white reception room of the royal compound (the stunning set is by Pam Johnson), staring past the ghostly sheeted furniture and out the sliding glass doors that yield onto the sublime vista that is the Bard mainstage's signature but that in this case truly does overwhelm and undo our focalizing subject (although the fact that for a moment at yesterday's matinee Young had to share the stage with a patron eager to capture the view on his iPhone somewhat marred the effect). Just as the lights dim and Torquil Campbell and Chris Dumont's original music fills the theatre, a scantily clad Ophelia (a wonderfully open and vulnerable Rachel Cairns) enters stage left and joins Hamlet in a post-coital embrace downstage; the move neatly establishes that the couple has a romantic past, thus making all the more powerful and shocking Hamlet's subsequent sacrificing of his girlfriend as part of the collateral damage of his revenge plot.

Of course, the play famously pivots on whether Hamlet is up to this task. However, in Collier's production this is something about which we are never in doubt. As soon as Hamlet joins Bernardo and Marcellus and Horatio (played here by Jennifer Lines, who again proves she is perhaps the crispest, most enunciative deliverer of Shakepeare's lines in the whole Bard company) on the heath of Elsinore and learns from the ghost of his father the truth about his murder and usurpation at the hands of Claudius, he is resolved to answer the foul deed in kind. And Young makes it clear that all of his subsequent actions--his feigned "antic disposition," for example, and his conscription of the visiting players into performing an amended version of "The Murder of Gonzago" as part of the Act 3 inset play (with the company here making the most of the stage technology and projecting in close-up the dumb show via a live video feed)--are in service of this goal. This, then, shifts the focus from psychology to ontology, with the bookish Hamlet's soliloquies collectively comprising a study in the discovery of being: and to be Hamlet in this case above all means to be his father's son, to live up to the inheritance that the young prince perhaps in his early college days wasn't so interested in acknowledging, but that now, seeing Claudius on the throne that should rightfully belong to him (and, as importantly, knowing the similarly-aged Fortinbras is on Denmark's doorstep with his army), he is belatedly reminded he might just want after all. Tellingly, in this respect, the play ends not with a blackout on the corpses that litter the stage at the end of Act 5, but with the cast exiting one by one as Hamlet picks himself up, climbs the upstage dais stairs and sits down purposefully in the the throne chair previously occupied by his uncle.

But if Hamlet is his father's son, he is equally his mother's, and another great pleasure in this production comes from soaking up the chemistry between Young and Barbara Pollard's Gertrude. Not that, as in so many stagings, they ratchet up the Oedipal business unduly. Instead, in their scenes together, Young and Pollard cannily and economically show how their former closeness has become such a gulf in part because of their misunderstandings of how each should manage their grief. For Hamlet, Gertrude's quick remarriage to Claudius is an unconscionable betrayal of what should have been her chaste honouring of her first husband's memory. But, as Gertrude's brief dance with her son to Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" during the closet scene demonstrates, for her, part of the work of mourning is getting on with the business of living. And though it's not necessarily there in the relatively few lines that poor Getrude is given in the play, I've always felt that her marriage to Hamlet Sr. might not have been all it was cracked up to be (particularly in the bedroom), and that in the younger brother she is rediscovering her sexuality. This is something Pollard, grounded, earthy, sensual, and wearing a series of sexy outfits by costume designer Nancy Bryant, ably brings out in her terrific performance.

Other cast members also stand out: Richard Newman, who manages to find just the right note of dignity in Polonius' buffoonery; Bill Dow, who is a suitably oily and sleazy Claudius (again, Bryant's costume choices help out immeasurably here); and, once again, Cairns as an Ophelia triply undone by patriarchy (father, brother, boyfriend), and who somehow manages to turn her willow song into something contemporary and Feist-like. While I liked him as one of the gravediggers, I wasn't so taken with Duncan Fraser's channeling of the voice of doom for the ghost of Hamlet Sr. As Laertes, Todd Thomson confirmed what I didn't like about his performance as Orlando in As You Like It in 2011: he's always shouting his lines. Finally, while I appreciated the cross-gender casting of Naomi Wright as Rosencrantz, turning Hamlet's duplicitous college friends into a grasping, social-climbing couple, I thought her performance was somewhat too hopped-up (she is always rubbing her nose, like she's just done a line of coke) and Craig Erickson's Guildenstern too passive.

Finally,  a word on Collier's trademark use of new media and technology. While this certainly wasn't an Electric Company show (for that, we'll have to wait till next spring and the Arts Club premiere of Helen  Lawrence), there was an abundance of liquid crystal display monitors on stage: from the flat screen TV stage left upon which Fortinbras' mug briefly appears, and which otherwise showed CCTV images of other parts of the Elsinore compound, to the various iPads and smart phones toted around by characters. Mostly these worked, and were used in service of the action on stage. The one mildly distracting bit was Hamlet's constant turning on and off of the scene music, which, beyond establishing that almost all of the sound in this production is diegetic (as befits our constantly plugged-in generation), and that the folks in the tech booth were on their game with the cues, didn't really add anything dramatically.

These are minor quibbles, however. This is an invigorating production of a canonical play, one that makes it formally contemporary without gutting its thematic substance.

An early evening exit from the theatre at Kits Point was also a nice bookend to a day that began with an early morning visit to the tip of Point Grey for Kokoro Dance's annual "Wreck Beach Butoh." I can't believe that in all my years in Vancouver, this was the first time I'd made the trek out to our clothing optional beach to see Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi and company move between surf and sand clad only in white body paint. It was cold, but also--and quite literally--awe-inspiring.

Talk about the Vancouver sublime!


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