Unit 102 Actors Company and The Fresh Mint Project’s film noir interpretation of Hamlet is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, even when the 1950s conceit starts to wear thin. The gorgeous costuming and lighting compliment an immensely talented cast, making this production a really solid mounting of what is often called Shakespeare’s greatest play.
As a Shakespearean scholar, I have to admit that Hamlet is the play I like to see performed the least. The text is too dense and literary to lend itself well to nuanced performances since actors too often feel the need to do something while they deliver some of the most famous speeches in the English language. While this production sometimes succumbs to this nearly inevitable invitation to overacting, it also does several clever new things with the play to balance itself out.
The most obvious and most delightful of these things is the cross-gender casting of Lauren Horejda and Anne von Leeuwen as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively. It is no great secret that these two women are among my favourite performers in Toronto theatre and their performances in Hamlet only increase my love for them. Their giggly, flirtatious, self-absorbed characters bring some much-needed life to the stage. It is my greatest hope that one day we can get a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead starring the two of them so that we can have more of them as these characters.
I might also add that Chloe J. Sullivan is striking as Horatio. The way that she, Terrence Duraisami, and Will King play the opening scene reminds me why it is considered to be the best in English theatre. Their performances make the terror, tension, and intrigue of the ghost’s first appearance palpable and set the tone for this production perfectly. It doesn’t hurt that Ashleigh Kasaboski has found the most stunning costume for Sullivan’s Horatio and the lighting design for the sunrise is so unspeakably beautiful. The combination of these things sets the bar for the rest of the show high and lets other key moments in the show meet it in their greatness.
The other really clever thing that this production of Hamlet does is cast the young looking Jeff Irving as Claudius. To my mind, Claudius is not only much younger than Gertrude (played by Lynne Griffin in a tour-de-force performance), but also younger than Hamlet himself. This adds an additional layer to Claudius’ transgression against Hamlet and makes Hamlet’s disapproval of his relationship with Gertrude even more complicated. Irving is alternatively adorably naïve – as he is in his conversation with Polonius where Polonius is trying to convince him that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia – and wickedly manipulative.
Irving also has my vote for best delivery of a speech in this production for his delivery of Claudius’ confession. It is perhaps the most subtle and believable delivery in the show and serves wonderfully as the moment pre-intermission. Director Jesse Ryder Hughes’ decision to end “act one” with Hamlet threatening to kill Claudius just after his confession is nothing short of inspired. Not only does the staging give us a strong visual of Hamlet with a gun to Claudius’ head, but it also leaves any audience members unfamiliar with the play with the ambivalent notion that Claudius may have been killed before the play’s intermission.
Scott Walker and Kelly Van der Burg both give excellent performances as Hamlet and Ophelia, although their interpretations of the characters are generic and (as is usual for their characters) uneven. Walker is downright terrifying when he threatens violence in his confrontation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and his treatment of the two of them as women make his Hamlet outrightly unlikeable. He is also goofy and charming elsewhere in his performance, like in the scene where he mocks Polonius. As is custom, the audience is as unsure of what to make of Hamlet as the rest of the characters in the play. Van der Burg’s Ophelia is another lively bright star in the opening scenes of the play and gave me chills in her descent into madness, but compared to some of the other actors she didn’t bring anything new to the character. That might be my chief complaint against most productions of Hamlet, though.
If you’re a die-hard Hamlet fan or if you’ve yet to see a production of the play, Unit 102 and The Fresh Mint Project’s production of Hamlet is as fine an interpretation as any and worth a visit. In the places that it takes risks in reinterpreting the text, those risks pay off a hundred times over. It’s a totally solid production and I’m thankful that I got to see it.
Hamlet is now playing at The Theatre Machine (376 Dufferin St.) until February 7. Tickets are $20 for general admission, except on Tuesdays when they’re pay what you can (PWYC) and can be purchased online at www.unit102theatrecompany.com or at the door.