Friday, April 22, 2016


James Karas

Hamlet by William Shakespeare. The 2015 Stratford Festival production directed by Antoni Cimolino on the stage and by Shelagh O’Brien for the film with Jonathan Goad, Seana McKenna, Geraint Wyn Davies, Tim Campbell, Adrienne Gould, Tom Rooney and Mike Shara.

**** (out of five)

The film of the Stratford Festival’s 2015 production of Hamlet is coming to movie theatres on April 23.

I had mixed feelings about the live production but my views about the filmed version are quite enthusiastic. There are details, facial expressions and intonations in the film that I simply did not get or appreciate in the theatre.

Film director Shelagh O’Brien has filmed virtually the whole performance without any background scenery. The actors perform before a black background. The lit performance area on the stage is almost always compact and this makes scene changes quick and seamless. The lights go down in the scene that we are watching and the next scene begins immediately as the lights go on in that area.

Members of the company in Hamlet. Photography by David Hou.
The performance was filmed before a live audience but O’Brien manages to edit them out completely. We hear some laughter but there are no shots of people watching the play.

Most of the camera shots are judicious and effective except for a small penchant for close-ups. Seeing a chin-to-forehead shot on a big screen of Hamlet’s face is unnecessary not to say ridiculous. It does not reveal anything that we could not see plainly from a few feet away.

The combined effect of all the above is a well-paced drama that is directed at you, rather than the audience of a large theatre. The facial expressions of Goad as Hamlet, Seana McKenna as Gertrude and Geraint Wyn Davies as Claudius are incomparably more effective than what one can discern in the theatre.

Goad’s handling of the poetry may not be the best but he is capable of considerable dramatic range. Adrienne Gould as Ophelia does excellent work and in the mad scene she rises to meteoric heights.

Cimolino treats Polonius, played by Tom Rooney, respectfully and in fact makes him a cleric with a large cross hanging from his neck. Polonius is an easy target for ridicule but there is none of that in this production and quite right too. Cimolino lays great emphasis on the Christian morality of the play. In addition to Polonius being a cleric, there is a large white cross suspended in the air through much of the performance. A startling reminder of Christian doctrine including, among others, the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, the reason Hamlet does not kill Claudius when he finds him praying and the unsanctified ground where Ophelia is almost buried.

Horatio is a likeable figure but in the hands of Tim Campbell he becomes quite memorable as the voice of decency and true friendship. A marvellous performance.

Cimolino is a director who lives by details and this production abounds in them. One example will suffice. We see that Ophelia has a violin and a stand with the score of La Traviata  on it. Beside them there is a sewing machine. She is a cultured woman with domestic virtues. She plays a few notes on the violin and sings “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day” to her father. This is not in the text. During her mad scene, when she is grieving for her father she sings the same words. The characterization and the connection are inserted by Cimolino. Simply brilliant.

The production is done in modern dress with some inevitable changes. Hamlet, for example, shoots Polonius with a rifle. Michael Walton’s lighting is dramatic from the first beam of light that shoots upward from the stage to the same one that emanates from the grave on the stage at the end. 

Hamlet will be released in Cineplex theatres on April 23, 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and on April 28.

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