Mental health takes centre stage in the mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s)

Skipping Stones Theatre gives us a new, contemporary take on the Shakespeare classic brings mental health front and centre with its mercurial, heart-wrenching, provocative adaptation Hamlet(s), directed by Sean O’Brien, supplemented by additional Shakespearian text; and opening last night to a sold out house at b current Studio in Artscape Wychwood Barns. Here, we have a Hamlet who’s literally and figuratively beside himself, played by two actors; a young man struggling with emerging Bipolar I as his world crumbles around him.

I never get tired of seeing how different theatre companies interpret and adapt Hamlet. Opening with “To be or not to be…,” Hamlet’s (Tristan Claxton and Kate McArthur) emerging mental illness is established off the top of Hamlet(s). The double casting turns soliloquies into Hamlet’s conversations with himself; and the effective tag team nature of his dialogue reveals a troubled, fractured mind rolling through manic, mixed and depressive episodes—with McArthur’s side of Hamlet taking on an inner voice quality.

This adaptation also examines the responses of friends and family to a loved one’s mental health crisis. Ophelia (Breanna Maloney) is featured more prominently, taking on a more active role; mindful and concerned about Hamlet’s welfare, she enlists the assistance of Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Liz Der). Conflicted and torn about telling her father Polonius (Mike Vitorovich) about Hamlet’s increasingly erratic behaviour, and unable to find another way to help him, Ophelia chooses to place her trust in a parent; this makes her subsequent mental breakdown following Polonius’s death—at Hamlet’s hand—all the more heartbreaking. And one can see how and why Horatio would consider taking her own life after all attempts at helping her friend have failed—and those who were supposed to help and care for him have only betrayed or neglected Hamlet.

Claudius (Tim MacLean) and Gertrude (Shalyn McFaul) are also concerned—he out of fear of exposure and losing his ill-gotten throne, and she out of guilt and neglected love—but are after a quick fix for Hamlet’s problem. Enter Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz (Felix Beauchamp) and Guildenstern (Tamara Freeman), summoned to cheer Hamlet up; but instead of genuinely listening to Hamlet, they offer mere positive spins to counter his intimations of what ails him.

Unable to level off and organize his rapid-fire thoughts and emotions, Hamlet’s in no shape to enact revenge on Claudius for the murder of his father. Directly responsible for the death of Polonius, and perhaps also feeling responsible for Ophelia’s subsequent breakdown and death, Hamlet eventually faces off with the vengeful Laertes (Erin Eldershaw) in what’s being sold as a friendly fencing match. Surprisingly calm and ready for death—one gets the impression that he may be opting for suicide by vendetta.

Remarkable, gripping, lazer-focused performances from Claxton and McArthur as the dual Hamlets; both revealing a full range of struggling, conflicted emotional and psychological experience—from dejected despair, to playful antics, quixotic exchanges and a-ha flashes of inspiration. It’s raw, real and present—fascinating, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking to watch.

Equally fine work from the rest of the ensemble, with Maloney’s ethereal, loving Ophelia and Der’s sweet, nerdy Horatio clearly the only ones who are truly on Hamlet’s side; desperate to help their friend, they’re both frustrated and baffled as they grasp for a solution. MacLean gives a slick, corporate edge to the pompous, entitled Claudius; and there’s a tinge of melancholy to McFaul’s cool, detached Gertrude. Vitorovich gives us some great comic turns as the intelligent but verbose Polonius and the cheeky, sharp-witted Gravedigger; and Eldershaw offers up compelling performances as the irreverent, fiery Laertes and the divalike First Player. And Beauchamp and Freeman are a great pair as the affable but duplicitous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are more concerned about serving at Claudius’s pleasure than they are with helping their friend.

Those who aren’t protective of Hamlet’s health and welfare aren’t necessarily bad people—some are merely self-serving, clueless, in denial or negligent. And even those who strive to truly help find themselves spinning their wheels due to lack of awareness and subsequently missing what resources may be employed to help. Just like real life. A long neglected aspect of our health care system, we’re gradually seeing mental health come to the forefront. More of us are realizing that mental health is health.

Hamlet(s) continues in the b current Studio Theatre until November 24, with performances tonight (November 17) and November 22-24; please note the 7:30pm curtain time. Advance tickets available online—a good idea given the limited seating in this intimate venue, with a short run—at the door.

Advertisements

Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III

James Wallis in Richard III. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare Bash’d opened its 2018 season to a sold-out house at the Monarch Tavern last night with a classic tale of murderous machinations and royal double-crosses with its production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus with associate director Megan Miles.

For those not familiar with the history and characters behind this drama: no worries, there’s a handy, brief introduction in the program to orient you to the background and major players in this story of violence, betrayal and plotting over the English throne.

The War of the Roses has just ended, with The House of York (who wore the white rose) victorious over the House of Lancaster (wore the red rose). Taking advantage of the recent upheaval and a country still divided, Richard of Gloucester (James Wallis) turns his brother King Edward IV (Trevor Pease), who’s been suffering ill health, against their brother Clarence (also played by Pease; do-able as Clarence and Edward are never in a scene together). Playing the long game, Richard is counting on Edward’s imminent death – which, when it comes to pass, only leaves him with two young princes to deal with.

Weaving a complex, tangled web of deceit that includes toxic gossip dissemination and emotional manipulation, Richard manages to calm the wrath of Anne (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), widow of the usurped Prince of Wales, who he slayed – in that classic complex and difficult two-hander that takes place over the casket of her dead husband. She later has little choice but to consent to marry him. Unrelenting in his drive and ambition, and dangerously unpredictable, even Richard’s followers become uneasy around him – and rightly so. As the bodies pile up on his way to the throne, friends who supported him – like Hastings (Kelly Wong) and Buckingham (Cosette Derome) – are executed when he whiffs even the slightest scent of disloyalty or hesitation in executing his orders.

And just when you think Richard can’t get any more disgusting, after he orders the assassination of his two nephew princes, he gets rid his wife Anne (poison) and goes on to demand that his brother’s widowed queen Elizabeth (Catherine Rainville) speak to her daughter Elizabeth (his niece) to prepare her to be his queen!

Richard III’s crimes do not go unpunished. In the end, the House of Lancaster rises up and Richmond (Drew O’Hara) rallies supporters to depose the tyrant king and reunify the country.

Outstanding work from the multitasking ensemble in this complex, dynamic tale of familial homicide, vengeance and bringing down a tyrant: Cosette Derome, Jade Douris, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Suzette McCanny, Shalyn McFaul, Drew O’Hara, Trevor Pease, Catherine Rainville, James Wallis, Kelly Wong and Joseph Zita. Wallis gives us a subtle, cunning and menacing Richard. Richard is the king of fake news – and, as we know from current experience, when it comes to fake news, he who smelt it dealt it. Casually executing acts of horrible violence, Richard is adept at masking his true feelings and masterfully manipulates public opinion, playing the humble and devout servant of the realm when it suits his skeevy, scheming purposes.

Other stand-outs include Derome’s ambitious and sly Buckingham; friend and loyal supporter of Richard’s schemes, even she can’t help but be disturbed by his actions and orders. McCanny is fierce in her curses and merciless in her rage as Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. McFaul (as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother) and Dzialoszynski (as Anne) give heartbreaking performances in their vengeance-filled grief over their lost husbands and kinsmen; overcome by circumstance and feelings of powerlessness, they fight back as best as they can with their words. And, speaking of fighting words, Rainville (Elizabeth) is fearless in her dagger spitting face-off against Richard, ferociously attempting to defend her young daughter even as she mourns her lost husband and murdered sons.

Pease gives several strong performances: the mild-mannered, baffled Clarence; the regal and struggling new King Edward; and the chilling Ratcliffe (Richard’s muscle). O’Hara is an inspiring Richmond, giving a rousing pre-battle speech in the vein of that famous Henry V speech; seeking to heal a brutally injured country, Richmond plans to bring peace and unity in his victory. Adding some welcome comic relief are Wong’s wry-witted, smug Hastings; and, sent to take care of Clarence in the Tower, O’Hara and Zita’s darkly comic assassins become hilariously dazed and confused when confronted with their target.

This minimalist production is staged effectively and dynamically in an alley format (audience on both sides of the long, narrow playing area); and the hard rock music interludes, and jeans, t-shirt and sweater costuming, give it a contemporary edge.

Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation and a tyrant falls in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III.

Richard III continues at the Monarch Tavern till February 11; advance tickets are already sold out, but if you arrive early, you can get on the wait list 30 minutes before show time ($25 – cash only).