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Transcript: Connie Meng Review aired Monday, January 12, 2004

National Arts Centre, Ottawa ON
Thursday, January 8 through Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Artistic Director Marti Maraden has put together a satisfying production of HAMLET. Although not without flaws, the evening flows smoothly, holds the audience and feels much shorter than the actual playing time of three and a half hours. Use of the full thrust allows for spatial variety in the staging.

John Pennoyer's spare set of grey stone-like platforms whose pillars and doorways are framed with silver metal provides the perfect setting for his spectacular costumes. Gertrude's and Ophelia's gowns are beautifully right for both the actresses and the characters. The combinations of fabrics and textures in those of the men have an air of richness and depth. Although not strictly Elizabethan, Mr. Pennoyer has contrived a clever alternative to the traditional boots and doublets.

Louise Guinand's lighting is effective, but in much of Act I a bit too dim. The music and sound by Marc Desormeaux is excellent. He uses percussion combined with simple melodies to good effect. The various metallic sounds throughout and the oboe and chimes at Ophelia's funeral are especially evocative.

The Players all do a nice job and are very good in the opening pantomime. Douglas Campbell doubles as the 1st Player and the Grave Digger and is, as always, wonderfully mesmerizing. As Polonius David Schurmann has a great sense of comedy, but tends to lose the thought when dealing with the complex language, particularly after the ghost scene. In contrast, Ben Carlson gives us a well-rounded Horatio - thoroughly believable and at home with the blank verse.

Michelle Monteith is a lovely Ophelia whose performance grew on me. She has a strong singing voice and is very affecting in the mad scenes. Alessandro Juliani's Laertes is appropriately young and hot-headed. His final scene including the duel with Hamlet, well staged by John Stead, is powerful. The wonderful Paul Rainville is wasted in multiple roles that are virtually walk-ons.

A major flaw is the obvious mis-casting of Victor Ertmanis as Claudius. He has neither the presence nor stature to explain Gertrude's attraction. There's no chemistry between them, and no clarity as to his motivation for the murder. He, like Mr. Schurmann, tends to lose us in the language.

Fiona Reid as Gertrude never loses us. I admired her performance last season in INDIAN INK, and she's just as strong in this role. Her interpretation emphasizes Gertrude's strong maternal feelings for Hamlet, while leaving us in doubt as to her true feelings toward Claudius.

Tom Rooney gives us a young Hamlet - a good reminder that he, Horatio and Laertes are all students. He's chosen to play the role as if his madness is feigned, which allows for some welcome humor. For example, the scene in which he's naming the shapes of clouds is really funny. Mr. Rooney also has the depth to let us see the pain and anguish of the character.

Of course everyone waits for "To be or not to be", which is one of the play's problems. Parts of Hamlet are almost too familiar. "To thine ownself be true", "Frailty thy name is woman", and "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" are just a few of the lines that are now part of our language. Their very familiarity tends to arrest one's concentration when heard in context.

Director Maraden has come up with some clever ideas, in particular the interchangeability of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, well played by Patrick McManus and Graeme Somerville. The hollow at the heart is the lack of a discernable relationship between Gertrude and Claudius. The staging is excellent and the production values impressive.

On a scale of one to five, the NAC production of HAMLET gets four and one-fourth Royal Canadian Mounted Police. For North Country Public Radio, I'm Connie Meng.

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