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All Denmark's a Forest Hot

J. A. Macfarlane
Written by J. A. Macfarlane     July 01, 2014    
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All Denmark's a Forest

Photos: Michael Holmes-Lauder

  • Hamlet
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Bard in the Barracks
  • June 25th-July 6th 2014 (except July 1st)
Acting 4
Costumes 5
Sets 5
Directing 4
Overall 4

(Full disclosure: I have in the past worked with the director, studied under Polonius and acted with Gertrude, who remains an excellent friend.)

For some years now, Fredericton’s Bard in the Barracks company has moved from presenting Shakespeare in the downtown Barracks to putting them on in Odell Park. This may not seem so shocking a move: after all, there are plenty of ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ troupes out there. But Odell Park is not a tame park: rather, it is a spot of woodland in the middle of the city, traversed by paths, and not containing an amphitheatre. And director Len Falkenstein takes full advantage of all the forest has to offer: scenes are site-specific, and the audience has to walk through sometimes treacherous terrain to reach the next stage. The plays therefore take place in much wilder settings than could otherwise be achieved — though naturally, the fascinating possibilities this opens up also bring with them their own set of problems to be solved. This is particularly so in the case of Hamlet, which is not like the company’s previous choice of play for the park. Macbeth, Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Lear, The Tempest, and, most obviously, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are all fairly self-evident as woodland shows. Only As You Like It is missing, possibly because it was performed in the company’s early years, when they still performed in the eponymous barracks. But Hamlet is not only a claustrophobic play, it is a very interior one. Moving it from the enclosed prison of the castle at Elsinore, carefully guarded by nervous sentries, to what can feel like an endless forest, appears quite quixotic.

Falkenstein is clearly aware of this, and deals with the issue ably enough by setting the play within a travelling culture, somewhat akin to the Roma and the Irish Travellers, and while this produces its own contradictions, it is a handy enough destabilisation from the clichéd Renaissance court to match the lack of castle. Better yet, the fact is not played up, the way that some productions overwhelm the play with the concept that’s been found with it. In fact, were it not for half of the audience getting to see Polonius’s caravan, one might suspect that only the Players were travellers, or that the various caravans serving as set were simply subtly referencing the historical existence of travelling players, and linking this outdoors performance to that tradition — which would be a perfectly valid decision. But Polonius’s caravan, with its teakettle boiling outside, lets half of us know that these caravans are to be taken for what they are — that they are, dare we say, true to themselves.

But only half of us. For beyond destabilising us by placing us in a wood and forcing us to walk through it, occasionally in the dark, Falkenstein goes further and cleaves the audience in two. A variety of intriguing philosophical ideas are advanced in the programme as an explanation for this, but one cannot help but suspect that time had more to do with it. Hamlet is, after all, a very long play, and four hours is a very long time to stand or sit in the woods; this decision lops an hour off the playing time. However it may be, half of the audience, known as the ‘2B’ group, follows Hamlet throughout the play; while the other, namely ‘Not2B’, see everything else. This is undoubtedly the most unique feature of the production. It is also its greatest flaw. It is an intriguing experiment but, in the end, I think, a failure.

Certainly, it allows for interesting effects: the half of the audience that does not see Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost is left as confused by his actions and (apparent) madness as are the members of the court, while those who follow Hamlet share his shock at Ophelia’s death and Laertes’s reappearance in Denmark (assuming, of course, that they haven’t read the synopsis, or that their memory of the plot is hazy). And as one of the actors was overheard saying, the division of the play streamlines character arcs, allowing them to become much clearer. This is perfectly true, and doing this is a valuable rehearsal technique, but the balance of the play is lost. Curiously, Hamlet loses his consistency when all of his scenes are played one after the other. The audience has no time to assimilate his alterations, nor to consider and wonder what he will do next, and so he simply becomes confusing. For the 2B group, following the Prince wherever he goes unless the play has him off-stage, there is no sense of dallying or delay on his part. Things happen rapidly — and therefore a soliloquy such as ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ lacks all its sense. By not seeing Claudius and Gertrude’s concern over the prince before his encounter with Polonius, we have no idea that time has passed since he saw the ghost a short walk through the woods ago.

Falkenstein openly admits in his programme note to operating under the assumption that everyone in the audience other than his nine-year-old daughter (at least until opening night) knows the story anyway, and that we therefore do not miss too much by missing an hour of the show. But this splitting of the audience is the only experimental element of the production, the only way in which it is deconstructed: the rest is quite traditionally done, within the bounds of the setting, and however intriguing the details. And these details can be intriguing: for instance, as 2B follows Hamlet towards the start of the play, we pass by one of the guards bawdily singing one of Ophelia’s mad songs. It is effective in getting across the fact that Ophelia’s songs are vulgar; but the point is entirely lost, given that this group does not witness Ophelia’s madness while Not2B, who do, are not given this equivalent to an explanatory footnote. Ophelia, in fact, is the great victim of this audience splitting, as though the poor girl doesn’t suffer enough as it is: the 2B group simply never gets to know her, and is therefore in no position to mourn her.

Moreover, the whole patterning of the play is broken. Seeing the play in this fashion emphasises how well-constructed it is, something that our familiarity with the story often leads us to forget. Shakespeare always earned the ‘wright’ in his job description, and his plays are exceedingly well-plotted. Here, just as Hamlet’s delay vanishes for half the audience and the other remains ignorant that he has a mission, the counter-examples to this delay and mission lose all their vigour. Laertes, in particular, is nothing more than a bit part in the opening scene for 2B; his status as a worried brother is unknown, not to mention his function as a foil to Hamlet, the proper revenger who shows up Hamlet’s tergiversations by demonstrating how a revenger should act, bursting into Claudius’s presence with no care for his own safety, only the desire to murder. In only seeing him at his sister’s funeral, this aspect vanishes — we assume it is over her that he howls, not that he returned to Denmark for the sake of avenging his father; meanwhile, the half of the audience that has witnessed Laertes’s return is essentially unaware of Hamlet’s discomfiture over his own dithering (such as it is), though by this point Not2B is aware of Claudius’s crime and that Hamlet (somehow) knows of it. The thematic structure of the play is disjointed.

This is not to say that exceptional effects are not occasionally produced. For instance, Ophelia’s funeral procession — all the more dramatic for being augmented by half the audience — slowly emerging from the woods behind the gravediggers’ bone-bestrewn ditch, its chime-marked dirge matching the borne candles, is a lovely moment, while those in the procession get to see Hamlet give the ‘Poor Yorick’ speech in the distance as they move towards him. This, the most visually emblematic and recognisable scene in the play, if not in all of drama, brings Not2B up to date, and concretises the latent possibilities of the audience split, if a little late in the proceedings. It puts one in mind of many a moment in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, an effect heightened by the earlier use of a use from the latter play to fill a gap in time while waiting for Hamlet and his half of the audience to arrive — producing some possibly intentional comedy as the prince is announced as being alone, while in fact being followed by a troop of fifty or seventy people, many bearing lawn chairs. But that is the only such meta-theatrical moment that I noticed, and it seems to me that for the division of the audience to work, there should have been more. As it is, there is almost no communication between the actors and the spectators. Even the soliloquies are addressed to an invisible interlocutor rather than taking advantage of the possibility of speaking directly to the people who are listening to you anyway, and whose concentration is almost entirely on you (except for the bit concerned with slapping mosquitoes). This is true even at the very beginning of the play, when Hamlet opens the main action with ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’ (a rearrangement of the text I’ll get back to). By not further integrating the audience, opportunities are lost, and raised eyebrows fill the gap.

This is particularly true for 2B, though the experience of seeing only those parts of the play directly concerning Hamlet does much to support the suspicion that in many ways, the prince is actually the least interesting character in the play. Though the phrase ‘Hamlet without the prince’ may be proverbial, like all of Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet is in fact a group piece, and it is a pity that another casualty of the division is the sense of ensemble among the cast. Of course, no production of any play can offer up all the possibilities of a text on stage, but I am not certain that Bard in the Barracks provides enough to make up for the losses. It ends up seeming, in the main, unfair to the audience, who loses half the story, unfair to the actors, whose best work may be unseen by half the audience, and unfair to the play (not to mention unfair to the mosquitoes, who are left bereft of a full extra hour’s fine dining).

Let us take Ophelia as an example. Sharisse LeBrun is at her best in her early scenes with Laertes and Polonius and in her mad scenes — all of which are witnessed only by the Not2B group. Her amused toleration of her father’s foibles, her mildly rebellious description of her relationship with Hamlet, her somewhat pouty but not crushed (and not necessarily believable) acceptance of Polonius’s reprimands are all subtly and charmingly accomplished. In her madness, she trembles on the edge of sanity, her quasi-reasonableness all the more devastating in its contrast with her outbursts and screams and prettily-sung songs. Yet all this is hidden from the 2B group, whose only knowledge of her relationship with Hamlet is the pre-show, where they are seen canoodling under a tree and Hamlet gives her the favour she seeks to return — but this is easily missed or forgotten. 2B only truly see Ophelia in the nunnery scene, which is LeBrun’s weakest. Her reactions there do not seem to match Hamlet’s actions — a prime example of the lack of ensemble I mentioned earlier. Both speak — and act — their parts, but do not act off one another. It is also rather less than credible that Ophelia would be quite so calm in the Mousetrap scene when Hamlet lies his head against her, given that the last time they saw one another he attempted to strangle her. 2B, therefore, dismisses both Ophelia and LeBrun. Members of Not2B, on the other hand, take this scene in their stride and forgive it entirely following the mad scenes. It is appropriate that they should follow Ophelia’s body to the grave (and if that was LeBrun herself and not a mannequin, congratulations to her willingness to be carried over the less than smooth terrain leading to the graveyard); and they will applaud more loudly than do the others.

Polonius’s family at home also demonstrates the infelicities produced by the double stream performance. As mentioned earlier, while it does streamline character arcs, it also produces a speed in each stream which makes nonsense of the plot. Here, for instance, once Ophelia agrees to no longer see Hamlet again, she is gone just long enough for Polonius to send off Osric (standing in for Reynaldo) to spy on Laertes before she is back, having had her mute encounter with Hamlet and received a number of text messages from him. Given that Hamlet has only just met the ghost — in 2B, we in fact witness the dumb show, which I must admit I think is a mistake; the scene has to be acted out exactly as Ophelia describes it, and even Olivier didn’t manage to make that look anything other than ridiculous — this is a time problem on the level of Othello’s. It is this speeding-up of the plot itself that gives credence to the thought that the main reason for the double stream is to save an hour’s time while cutting as little as possible.

The choice as to what is cut, on the hand, are somewhat bizarre. It is fascinating to see probably the most easily and most-often cut passage in Hamlet — namely the unexplained details about Lamord, the French fencer — still remain while the Ghost is almost gone. Here Falkenstein gives in to a tendency in productions that I admit sets me on edge: people are often embarrassed by the Ghost, and try to remove him as much as most possible from the play. But Hamlet is, first and foremost, a ghost story, and it is odd to see a company that put on the most witch-ridden production of Macbeth I’ve ever seen coming so close to eliminating the supernatural altogether. But then, one can’t have the Ghost appear in the closet scene when half the audience is unaware that there is a ghost.

The Ghost scene that survived does at least provide one of the two most effective uses of the park in the play, along with the gravediggers’ ditch. Picking up on the warning that the Ghost might be leading Hamlet to the edge of a precipice, the conversation between the prince and his father takes place on the very edge of a precarious twenty-foot drop — above the audience. There is no better way to show just how dangerous the precipice actually is than to have us staring up riveted to the actors’ shoes in the hopes that they won’t make a false step and splatter at our feet. The scene is, though, severely cut, and unfortunately not very spooky. One must admit that it’s hard to make a lovely woodland scene spooky when there are still 90 minutes till sunset, but the lack of menace is disappointing. Without the opening ghost scene (a very truncated version of which may be seen as you arrive), there is no set-up for the Ghost’s arrival, and therefore precious little atmosphere, while Hamlet’s neurosis appears out of nowhere (as does his rant against drunkenness). Incidentally, it should perhaps be noted that given that they’re father and son, if the Ghost pronounces it ‘Ado’, Hamlet’s probably shouldn’t say ‘Adieu’. Or the other way round.

However, though the textual choices made weaken the production, they do not do so mortally, thanks to the performances offered. Though they do not coalesce as one might wish, individually they are often very fine. John Ball as Polonius is particularly memorable. He gives us a charming Polonius, enraptured with his own euphuistic eloquence, as delightfully unaware of his own hypocrisy as of the rolled eyes and heavy sighs that both his children and his monarchs give behind his back — but only behind his back. Productions that overemphasise Polonius’s more questionable aspects — his constant spying, for instance — often forget that Gertrude’s eulogy for him, spoken in the shock of his death, calls him ‘the good old man’. One can clearly see why she would think so here, however exasperating his overflow of words may have been, and however much of an aging libertine trying to vicariously recapture his youth through his son he is. He seems everybody’s slightly wacky uncle, rather embarrassing at times — one shudders to think of the cringe-worthy speech he’d give at his daughter’s wedding — but still worthy of respect, and generally good-natured.

Filling out the Polonius family is Jesse LaPointe as Laertes. It is an interesting choice: rather than a happy-go-lucky playboy or a stuck-up prig, two of the more common interpretations, Laertes is a less than eloquent young man lost in a world of vigorously verbalisers, an awkward jock who manages to make us feel sorry for him as he tries to give good advice to his sister without using coarse language. LaPointe bellows well in his rage, and the physicality of his anger is convincing. When he grapples with Hamlet in the grave, he is reduced to animalistic roars that are shocking in this verbose and language-concerned play, ably demonstrating the depths of his sorrow and rage, and his straightforward simplicity. In his parting scene with Ophelia, we see him search for his words as he tried to caution her about Hamlet; here it is confirmed that, as someone else once said, he cannot heave his heart into his mouth.

Matthew Chiasson makes the most of his time as Osric, particularly thanks to his taking Reynaldo’s place. Like a perfect courtier, he seems to be everywhere at once, and one can only hope that Chiasson knows a good masseur to save his neck from the effects of his endless nodding. Alas, the opportunities with his hat are lost, not least because Hamlet is not wearing one in that scene, as he should. The general hat-wearingness of the men at the start of the play had given me hopes, but ’twas not to be.

Those other two spies of Claudius’s, the wannabe courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were a delight. Credibly interchangeable, Jean-Michel Cliche and David Smith did justice to the dimness of their characters, as well as a fine turn as actors in the Stoppard play. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it so clearly laid out that the two are not only out of their depth in politics but are also very poor philosophers. Cliche and Smith give the distinct impression of having been on the debating team in school, and being used to being bested by Hamlet there. Certainly, they do not appear to deserve their deaths, and it was appropriate that on hearing of their execution, Alex Donovan’s beatnik Horatio’s outburst of ‘Why, what a King is this!’ is clearly a comment on the sort of king Hamlet would make. Donovan does his best with an ungrateful role that all too often serves only to provide an excuse for more exposition, made yet more ungrateful by the fact that Not2B essentially first meets him just before The Mousetrap. Horatio’s reaction to Hamlet’s death is rather over-the-top considering what’s come before. Hamlet’s assessment of him as ‘not passion’s slave’ is revealed as somewhat incorrect.

There are in fact several over-the-top moments in the production: the actors often choose to go for displaying emotion rather than trying to evoke it in the audience. A prime example here is Michael Holmes-Lauder’s pimped-up Claudius — gold chains, fedora, sunglasses and gaudy rings — whose ‘Oh my offense is rank’ can only be described as Shatnerian — not to mention coming out of nowhere, as there is no sign of remorse in him beforehand and no pause for introspection before he begins. Otherwise Holmes-Lauder offers an intriguing Claudius, mildly sleazy but good with people all the same. We’re never entirely certain of why he murdered his brother and took the crown — whether it was for Gertrude, or for the sake of power, or what — but certainly he has a close relationship with his wife. Whether he cares for anybody else remains uncertain, and in the later parts of the play he approaches moustache-twirling villainy that could be toned down, but certainly we see no reason to think that he’s bad at his job.

With her bird of paradise crest of hair, slightly too much makeup, and dress sense teetering on the edge of tackiness, Gertrude (Rebekah Chassé) was wonderfully constructed, and Chassé’s performance is a highlight of the evening, not least due to her subtlety and her willingness to make time for silence. She gives us a woman who has everything she needs to be happy, except for the fact that her son will not be happy for her. Her lack of patience with Jake Martin’s pouting Hamlet occupied most of the first half of the play, Gertud’s clear love for her son being overborne by her exasperation with him. In a culture where one might expect men to grow up young, Hamlet does not seem to be willing to (a factor helped by Martin’s rather youthful voice), and by the start of the closet scene Gertrude has clearly had enough. It is noticeable that during the Mousetrap scene, it is Gertrude who is made uncomfortable by the play until its very end, and Claudius’s questioning whether the play is offensive is entirely on her behalf. Gertrude here is an independent women in a culture that does not quite accept the fact; she is clearly irritated at being asked to leave the room when Claudius has business, and her decision to drink at the very end of the play is as much because Claudius told her not to as from thirst. One has the sense that Gertrude has done her duty and now feels that she is allowed some freedom, which her son wishes to deny her; unlike Ophelia, whom she eventually takes under her wing, she refuses to ‘think nothing’ — and her progressive breakdown after Hamlet accuses Claudius of murder is an impressive bit of acting. She clearly begins to see the truth, and her hesitation and growing isolation — culminating in Ophelia’s death, which leaves her entirely alone — add relief to a character too often passively played. The Queen’s passage from righteously angry to distraught to utterly shattered as her world is pulled down around her is beautifully done, and a welcome change of pace in a production where characters often stay the same throughout. I was in fact surprised that her drinking the poisoned cup was not a deliberate suicide, which is what I thought the characterisation was aiming towards.

I must also give this production full marks for allowing me to fulfil one of my life-long dreams, namely that of seeing a production of the play where the closet scene involves neither a bed nor Hamlet dry-humping his mother. With Freud banished, the relationship between the two is gratifyingly non-erotic, and I think therefore much more interesting. Gertrude rejects the proposition that as a mother, she should live only through her child, rather than have a life of her own. While she diagnoses her son as being bothered by her o’erhasty marriage to Claudius, she shows not the faintest jot of remorse over having done so. She makes it perfectly clear that she thinks Hamlet should grow up. Hamlet clearly has issues with this.

But then, Hamlet has issues with everything, and Martin makes him unstable from the start. We first see him sitting beneath a tree with Ophelia before the show starts, happily chatting; this is when Ophelia receives his favour. Yet he moves immediately from this to ‘Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt’, opening the play with this soliloquy. How he passes from his evident happiness in Ophelia’s company to his most blatantly suicidal speech is unexplained; and I admit that I think this transposing of scenes — the court scene following the soliloquy rather than the other way round — is a mistake, in that Hamlet announces he is isolated before he is shown to be, instead of demonstrably being isolated and then commenting on the fact.

Still, Martin is to be commended for his willingness to open with one of the soliloquies, a feat rather akin to the tenor having to sing ‘Celeste Aida’ in Verdi’s opera with barely a few bars of warmup. And he is even more to be applauded for taking on the role while being shorn of all the usual breathing spots that allow actors to get through this monstrously long part. True, at times one feels that Martin’s energy is being channelled into stamina rather than into the performance, but that is understandable; it is still a feat, especially when one considers that after having gone through the entire play without a break, Hamlet is faced with a very vigorous duel on uneven ground.

Intriguingly, though Martin is at his best when Hamlet is angry and yelling, his Hamlet is a very weak man. The extent of his trauma even before he meets the Ghost strikes the audience as excessive. Clearly, he wishes to return to Wittenberg simply to get away from the situation; and when this is refused, one feels he is primed to grab on to the Ghost’s story simply because it allows him to change his thoughts. Certainly, the audience has no great wish to see this Hamlet become King; he gives no reassurance that he would be a good one.

Martin does his best to work through Hamlet’s intellectual journey, despite the difficulties strewn in his path by the production, as discussed above — not least its speed. But along with his anger, he is particularly good at Hamlet’s comic side. It is a nasty comic side, and we’re not sure whether it suggests what Hamlet may have been like before his father died, but it is both present and welcome. The nastiness of his jokes is part of another fine aspect of the performance: it is never hidden that Hamlet is rather a jerk, and we’re left uncertain why Horatio and Ophelia care for him so much. No one else seems to; even his mother appears to love him rather than like him. (Of course, it is particularly difficult for the Not2B group to emphasise with him, just as 2B is not particularly fussed about Ophelia.)

Further humour is provided by Ian Goff’s gravedigger, ably assisted by John Ball. Goff does an excellent job of getting across the sometime obscure jokes, and his utter lack of respect — though less shocking that it might be were Claudius’s court not as casual as it is — is greatly enjoyable.

The other outsiders — other than Fortinbras, whose role is difficultly fathomed in performance, and who therefore becomes even more baffling when most of the references to him are split between the groups — are the Players, who bring a welcome touch of liveliness and colour into the rather dour atmosphere of the rest. Unconstrained, they dance, sing and summersault about, the brightly-tinted skirts of the three ladies a particular visual relief. They also provide a lovely play in the old style, with the nice touch that the part of the King in the The Mousetrap is taken by Devin Luke, who also plays the Ghost, and accompanied by intriguingly atonal improvised flute music; they also introduce us to the Hungarian Roma song that serves as both leitmotif and final chorus to the play. But their most memorable part is the entertainment they provide during intermission: 15 minutes of fooling around, dancing and singing, not even necessarily very well, but out of the sheer desire to do so. It is a liberating scene — and having seen it twice, I am impressed at how closely what appears to be improvised teasing and horseplay is reproduced each night.

Elizabeth Goodyear, who takes the part of the First Player, delivers one of the highlights of the evening with her performance of Aeneas’s tale to Dido. Goodyear is the only cast member to truly speak the verse, and performs the speech in the grand style without overdoing it (at least until the end). I have long contended that this speech could be (and ought to be) truly moving in the hands of a gifted actor, rather than the hammy (and truncated) set piece it is usually played as, and Goodyear comes very close to proving my point.

A few other details of note: Mike Johnson deserves high praise for his design and construction of the various wagons used in the production, while in their role as fight directors, Jean-Michel Cliche and Len Falkenstein are to be as commended as the fighting actors themselves (Laertes and Hamlet). One does wish, though, that the company would rethink the direction of its poster design, an opinion I have held for several years. The children’s book feel of this year’s would not have brought me to the ticket booth had I not already known the company’s excellence.

Despite the issues I have highlighted at Polonius-like length above, there is therefore a great deal to enjoy in this production; but it is necessary to see it twice to get its full measure (and to the company’s credit, entrance a second time is half-price). If you are unable to do so and can only attend once, then I must recommend that you use the Not2B stream of the audience. This is no reflection on the performances witnessed by the 2B group; it’s simply that Hamlet without the prince is a much better play, as a play, than is Nothing-but-the-prince. Not2B is also recommended for those with weak knees.

Practical matters: the wearing of sandals is ill-advised, and if you wish to join the 2B stream, decent walking shoes are strongly recommended. And while the company does offer insect repellent, it is advisable to lather yourself therein before attending yourself, or possibly simply to bathe in it, as the combination of a wet spring and the near-total extinction of bats in the province leaves the final scene at grave risk of being further cluttered by the bodies of audience members exsanguinated by mosquitoes.

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