As I try to ease myself back into the habit of posting in this blog, I’m looking over the categories I established for myself in January, to see which one’s I’ve neglected. I enjoyed writing the “Ham and Sharp” articles, which detailed my own early relationship to the Danish Play. But I faltered right around the time when I was going to start describing the various productions I’ve seen.
Here, then, are capsule reviews of all the productions of Hamlet I can remember seeing between 1991 and 1993. Quotation marks refer to excerpts from my diaries at the time.
Saturday, March 23, 1991: Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic Theatre, starring Iain Glen
“Angels and ministers of grace defend us, Hamlet!” I saw this on the second day of a nine-day theatre-themed school field trip in England. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure this was Hamlet in “the Entirety” — that is, an uncut, 4 1/2 hour production. Imagine how that went over with a jet-lagged and sleep-deprived posse of teens. “To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have liked [it] if it hadn’t been Hamlet. The acting was mostly bad, especially Ophelia & Gertrude, and the setting was lousy (they kinda modernized it, but couldn’t decide on the period).”
Reflecting back on this almost 25 years later, I shudder to realize that (1) I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a Gertrude I liked, and (2) my 2016 production is heading towards a “kinda-modern-yet-not-quite-settled” setting. Maybe I should take advice from my inner adolescent, and nail things down a bit.
For a long time after seeing this show, I puffed with pride at the coincidence that I’d seen Iain Glen play Hamlet onstage, a role he’d recently played in the film adaptation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Nowadays, I can boast that I’ve seen Ser Jorah Mormont from Game of Thrones. Honestly, I don’t remember much about his performance, but he did win an Ian Charleston award for it, so there’s that.
Friday, April 24, 1992: One-Man Hamlet at Victoria School, starring Clayton Jevne
Close on the heels of our school’s own Shakespeare Festival, an event which I (obviously) invented, steered, and performed in, I got an extra dose of the Bard — but barely managed to survive it. “I eagerly volunteered to help tech and set up” the traveling show (Jevne is from Victoria, B.C.), “much to the chagrin of my left shoulder, which was rather pained to catch the light tree that came tumbling down” when a student bumped into it before the show.
After bemoaning my self-sacrifice (the lighting equipment would have hit other students if I hadn’t taken the weight on my shoulder), I ended my diary entry with this confusing line: “One-man Hamlet was good, too, although I’d seen it before.” I had? Getting to the bottom of that would require more diary detective work than I’m prepared to do right now.
Jevne’s Hamlet was heavily cut, of course, and relied upon a conceit involving balloons affixed to music stands. The number of balloon/stands raised indicated the number of characters onstage; they all had hats on, which Jevne would transfer to his own head when he spoke that character’s lines. When characters died, they got popped, of course. It was goofy but also kind of ingenious.
Thursday, August 20, 1992: Hamlet at the Edmonton Fringe
I’ve written about this one already, thinking at the time that it was my first theatrical exposure to Hamlet. Boy, was I doing the math wrong.
Friday, November 6, 1992: Hamlet at the Citadel Theatre, starring Joseph Ziegler
I remember next to nothing about this show, except that I had to leave at intermission because my girlfriend had a migraine. To my credit, I didn’t begrudge her this inconvenience; my diary entry at the time was compassionate, not resentful.
However, I know myself well enough to know that, if I wasn’t at least a little bit annoyed that I had to leave early, it was probably because the production wasn’t very good. Joseph Ziegler is a titan in Canadian Theatre, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he can kick ass in Elsinore; and the director was the Citadel’s AD at the time, Robin Phillips, whose favourite trick with Shakespeare was to stick a bunch of scantily clad boys on stage for no reason besides his own lechery.
Saturday, April 24, 1993: Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon, starring Kenneth Branagh
After all those tepid or tolerable Hamlets, it’s a wonder I even went back to the well again, but how could I turn down a chance to see Henry V himself play my favourite role? I was touring Europe after high school, and by this point, my theatre-loving girlfriend had joined me (her migraine had faded by this point), and we both had enormous crushes on Branagh, albeit for slightly different reasons. And Branagh hadn’t yet announced his plans to direct a film version of Hamlet, so this was our only chance! Here’s what my diary reports about the production:
“Spent the day in Stratford, celebrating the Bard’s birthday (a day late). Saw RSC’s Hamlet (with Kenneth Branagh!) and Richard III. Both fantastic. And now it’s 4am — the train got back pretty late. I think I’ll go to bed now.”
Hmm. Well, that’s certainly disappointing, isn’t it? Fortunately, much has been written about this groundbreaking production, which was directed by Adrian Noble, the recently appointed chief of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hopefully, those critical reports will job my own memory. But that will have to wait for another post.