Before we go any further, I should admit something: I’m a sucker for ambition. No, not the cheap, banal ambition of Wall Street hustlers or this play’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – what sways me is the ambition of creative risk-taking. Mediocrity is safe and easy; creativity takes guts.
This is a truly ambitious production of Hamlet. Ghost Light’s take on Shakespeare’s classic story of revenge, power, madness, and besieged loyalties is quite unlike any other you’ll have seen. As conceived and directed by Jeff Bastien, this production moves the action from a moody Danish castle to Wall Street, suggesting at several points that we’re watching these deadly family quarrels take place in a succession of board rooms, offices, and even the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Instead of classic weapons, characters wield letter openers, hammers, cell phones and briefcases (indeed, briefcases are used for all manner of purposes). The conceit here is that Wall Street would be the battleground of power if Hamlet were set in the 1980s. Indeed.
As it happens, the shift of locale has little effect on the play most of the time, and Bastien doesn’t put all of his eggs in one attaché case. Other decisions – several performance art moments focused largely on symbolic movement, the use of what resembles a quarry for a multi-purpose set, the presentation of Laertes as a woman, moody foregrounded lighting used for melodramatic effect, the use of droning backing tracks – are far more impactful, I expect by design. In fact, the Wall Street setting is explicit primarily in the performance art moments that exist almost outside of the play, as dreams or fantasies. Even the play-within-a-play takes on dreamlike qualities. All unapologetically, of course. This is a production that wants you to see what it’s doing as it unfolds in front of you, without any coy subterfuge.
Jeremy Burke plays Hamlet as somewhat weary from the start – his father has just died after all – then becomes increasingly animated as his plan moves each piece into place. His scene with Chris Lanspeary as Claudius at the top of act two was a highlight of the evening for me. Lanspeary (who speaks Shakespearean phrasings so naturalistically you wonder if that’s how he speaks at the breakfast table) had a chance to chew scenery as only he can, and Burke was able to add some menace to Hamlet’s emotional arsenal. Hamlet’s moments of ferocity, his flashes of rage with Gertrude and Laertes as well as Claudius, were a delight to witness – not only because of what they added to the play, but because they revealed a facet of Burke as an actor that I hadn’t yet seen. Dean Valentino played Polonius with endearingly self-effacing humour. I found myself rooting for him, somehow, and had remind myself that Polonius is pure sleaze. Avery Meloche and Heath Camlis were thoroughly entertaining in all of their clownish roles, especially as the gravediggers. As Ophelia, Kiera Publicover presented an interesting transformation from mousy wariness to gothic vulnerability. And Kitu Turcas was consistently believable as Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio. Each member of the cast, indeed, had at least one moment to shine, and did.
This has been an exiting year for Shakespeare fans in Windsor-Essex, and it seems fitting for Ghost Light Players to cap it off with a story that seems never to lose its relevance—a biting meditation not only on power and revenge, but on generational divides, on the costs and benefits of loyalty, on transience. After I left the performance space with two friends, we talked about this production into the wee hours. We argued and analyzed and spun off into tangents based on all the imaginative and emotional associations the story aroused. That’s the kind of effect art should have.
Hamlet runs for three more performances at the new Walkerville Arts Centre, across the street from Olde Walkerville Theatre) on November 29, 30 and Dec1. 8:00 Pm. Tickets are $25.