To Be and Not to Be: No Question Bard’s Hamlet Hits the Mark

4 07 2014
Play

No dumb show. Elizabeth Goodyear and Devin Luke are the players who catch the conscience of the king in Bard in the Barracks’ Hamlet in Odell Park. Photo Credit: Michael Holmes-Lauder

by Greg Everett

A rag-tag band of Travellers gathers around a gaudy wagon, called there by the strains of the violin and the guitar. The auspices are foreboding: the king has died, to be replaced by his brother; the grieving prince is touched with insanity; an army gathers in the distance while a ghost walks nearby. Still, all in attendance make merry, even though, as they disperse to the far corners of the itinerant camp, they will witness murderous machinations, violent retribution, and ultimately the collapse of the royal family. And the forest rings with the cries of madness.

For their latest production, Bard in the Barracks theatre company presents Shakespeare’s Hamlet, their fifth play to be staged in Odell Park. Once again, Director Len Falkenstein has drawn on his familiarity with the park in order to provide a unique theatrical experience: as in previous years, the dramatic action takes place in a number of locations throughout Odell, and the audience travels along with it from scene to scene. What’s more, for Hamlet, audience members are divided into two groups, “2b” or “Not-2b,” each of which follows a different set of primary characters throughout the narrative of the play.

The result is that while the whole, familiar story of Hamlet remains intact, the audience is witness to the play from a restricted, immersive perspective more akin to that of a character. (Disclaimer: This review is based on the “2b” stream, which follows Hamlet as he is convinced of Claudius’ guilt, feigns madness, and is subsequently sent away in the charge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) The young prince Hamlet (Jake Martin) laments his father, Claudius (Michael Holmes-Lauder) and Gertrude (Rebekah Chassé) try to convince him to move on, Horatio (Alex Donovan) brings Hamlet news of his father’s ghost (Devin Luke), Polonius (John Ball) and Laertes (Jesse LaPointe) tell Ophelia (Sharisse LeBrun) to stay away from the prince, and eventually Rosencrantz (Jean-Michel Cliche) and Guildenstern (David Smith) end up dead, along with everyone else.

Martin’s performance as the young prince is outstanding. Make no mistake, the entire cast deserves commendation for an excellent performance all around, but Martin is possessed at times with a wild energy which perfectly calls into question the feigned nature of Hamlet’s madness.

All the characters have their moments. Elizabeth Goodyear’s recitation of Hecuba’s speech offers a powerful and emotive delivery that leaves some members of the audience craning their necks to see the cause of her distress. Unfortunately, the “2b” stream misses out on a lot of the action involving Ophelia, but LeBrun’s chemistry with Martin throughout the play-within-the-play is indicative of a strong, natural performance across the whole of the production.

The technical team of Bard in the Barracks continues to raise the bar for outdoor theatre. Partly as a means to overcome the difficulties in staging Hamlet in a park, and partly due to the company’s distinct flavour, the original setting of the play has been exchanged, without any changes to the script, for a gypsy camp.

Set Designer Mike Johnston has captured the essence of a Traveller’s campsite perfectly, not only with impressively styled wagons, but also by adding just the right small touches, such as laundry hanging on a line. Completing the gypsy aesthetic are the excellent costumes of Wardrobe Designer Denise Richard, and, most significantly, the musical team, under the direction of Ian Goff, whose original compositions were emphatic, genuine, and beautiful.

The decision to divide the play into two different streams had its pros and cons. On the one hand, it achieved exactly what was intended: it created two alternate versions of Hamlet merely by displacing the audience’s position of omniscience, and the result was not only successful but entertaining. However, it means that, for each show, half of the audience misses out on Ophelia’s madness (and much of LeBrun’s performance).

To be fair, Bard offsets this challenge by offering a discount upon presentation of a ticket stub, and by making each stream as immersed in a certain set of characters as possible, creating the sense of being a witness rather than an audience member; for instance, the “2b” stream bears witness to many of Hamlet’s thoughts and actions that the “not 2b” stream omits, even as the audience follows him through the forest. The one hitch in this strategy is that at times some of Hamlet’s lines and conversations were lost to people hiking at the end of the line, but otherwise it perfectly achieved the sense of being a part of the prince’s entourage.

On a final note, the intermission of any play seems an odd point of praise, but Bard has now set a new precedent by turning a fifteen minute recess into a gypsy carnival, replete with music, singing, dancing, and all around cavorting. Strangely enough, it was this moment that felt the most immersive, which seems to perfectly encapsulate the spirit of Bard in the Barracks: to attend one of their plays is to truly feel a part of it, and the entire company, cast and crew, veterans and new members, deserves praise for making it happen each year.

Yorick

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” Hamlet (Jake Martin) presents to his friend Horatio (Alex Donovan), the remains of Yorick in the gravedigger scene, quintessentially staged in a ditch at Odell Park. Photo Credit: Michael Holmes-Lauder

Directed by Len Falkenstein, Bard in the Barracks’ production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet runs in Odell Park  June 25 to July 6, 2014.

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5 07 2015
“-the rest is silence.” | 10 YEARS OF BARD IN THE BARRACKS

[…] This is it! Whether you haven’t seen it yet, or you’re one of our ardent fans, tonight is literally your last chance to see this innovative and well-cultivated show. It wouldn’t be a lie to say that we’ve spent over a year perfecting this performance. It comes highly reccomended. […]

28 06 2015
“There is a play to-night before the King” | 10 YEARS OF BARD IN THE BARRACKS

[…] another performance of Hamlet! Don’t let those grey skies dissuade you from taking in some critically acclaimed, outdoor, immersive theatre. Remember, those trees act like giant […]

24 06 2015
Queen Street’s two hours’ traffic no match for Bard in the Barrack’s star-cross’d Romeo and Juliet | STU Reviews

[…] of Romeo and Juliet in Barracks Square, and a remount of last summer’s hit Hamlet in Odell Park. I enjoyed Hamlet last year before post-tropical storm Arthur cut the run […]

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