We’ve been waiting for this one. The young Shakespeare enthusiasts who came up watching Slings & Arrows only to graduate into a decade of shy Shakespeare from the festival we were indoctrinated to adore, this is the production we’ve been waiting for. We wanted new blood, we wanted new ideas, we wanted someone under the age of 40 to get a shot at proving themselves in a role defined by youthful angst instead of watching yet another tired established star take on Hamlet like a prize earned by a fancy resume. The school of Geoffrey Tennant taught us to value bold ideas, careful text reading, and emotion-based character study that dusts off stodgy tradition and treats the play like it’s something new. We haven’t seen that at the festival in a really long time, certainly not with Hamlet.
Peter Pasyk is a deeply thoughtful, unapologetic director known mostly for contemporary work. I’d have never thought to assign him anything that’s 400 years old, let alone the world’s stuffiest text in the country’s stuffiest theatre. Turns out, what Stratford needed was exactly that, someone you wouldn’t expect who would treat Hamlet like it wasn’t HAMLET. The festival stage was in desperate need of a little “how dare they!” and that, refreshingly, thankfully, game-changingly, is what we got from Pasyk and his Hamlet.
Pasyk’s production opens with a glass casket in the middle of the stage, corpse and all. It’s a striking visual, a little Evita-like but an interesting way to establish the old king as looming over the whole business. That’s the kind of big production value clever choice you might expect from the best of Stratford in the last few years. Then a table cloth is lain on top of said casket and it becomes a banquet table, Graham Abbey’s grinning Claudius raising a toast to his new wife, literally over Old Hamlet’s dead body. Pardon my language but holy fuck, we’re off the races now.
What follows is a Hamlet that rejects the traditional gloom in favour of frenzy. The rot of this Denmark isn’t a subtle smell, it’s eating through the flesh of the place and the characters have to run to keep from being consumed. The production is genuinely spooky, its propulsive action more brutal and immediate than one comes to expect seeing their seventeenth Hamlet (I think that’s the right number; the thing about most Hamlets is that you forget that you ever saw them). It’s also full of big swing choices like Claudius’ soliloquy being delivered with Polonius present. I saw it as a confession, I’ve heard it interpreted as a signal that Polonius knew the whole time; either way, it’s wild. I don’t know that I love it, but I love that it’s wild. Similarly, the relationship between Hamlet and Laertes is completely reimagined, throwing out standard interpretation of lines that should totally be up for interpretation to imagine the rivals as friends with more at emotional stake than how they each feel about Ophelia.
The actors all feel deeply present, even the ones who’ve been wandering around the country’s biggest stage for decades and are perhaps a bit too used to it. Abbey and Maev Beaty make strong choices about how Claudius and Gertrude feel about each other and they let those feelings grow and change over the course of the play, Beaty playing her death scene with absolute certainty that the cup was poisoned and exactly who did it.
Amaka Umeh is the most impactful of all, as they absolutely needed to be. Umeh’s been standing out for years to anyone paying attention (they were nominated for their first award from this website in 2015) but Hamlet at Stratford is a star-maker like no other opportunity on a Canadian stage, or at least it should be. The company knew they wanted a young person of colour to play the role (about damn time on both counts) so they did something they don’t do nearly often enough- they looked. Turns out, a nation-wide search dedicated to really seeing who’s out there can lead to actually finding who is out there. And there are some killer actors out there. Umeh is one of them and exactly the right person to scream some much needed life back into the canon’s most famous character. They are uniquely intense- energetic, athletic, focused beyond belief- and that intensity translates to the character brilliantly, obliterating the long-held notion of Hamlet as a listless time-waster. Umeh’s Hamlet tackles their avenger role with wild-eyed frenzy, slowed down more by too many ideas than not enough motivation. It’s a big, booming performance you can feel in your toes. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever felt Hamlet in my toes before (is that metaphor weird? Do you know what I mean? It’s that restless leg feeling that pulls you to your feet the second the play releases you; it’s what a standing ovation should feel like instead of the obligation it’s become).
I’ve been getting grumpy about Stratford in the last few years (perhaps you’ve noticed, I’ve seen no use in hiding it). I’m so tired of seeing the same people do the same thing in the same style and nothing adding up to more than the sum of its parts. I know a lot of that is just a taste issue- Antoni Cimolino and I don’t seem to be looking for the same things in a Shakespeare production and that’s my (hopefully temporary) burden to bear when it comes to reviewing Stratford. But this one feels different. It feels relevant and useful and like something maybe someone will remember. It certainly feels good to walk by a bus ad and see represented art that does justice to Stratford’s reputation. For better or for worse, the big show at Stratford is seen as the standard bearer for the state of Canadian theatre. In 2022, with Peter Pasyk and Amaka Umeh out in front, that standard actually reflects the vibrancy that Canadian theatre is capable of.