Ham and Sharp: Hamlet on Stage, 1992

KeepCalmAs I have already described, my first exposure to Hamlet (after Games Magazine, and the Black Swan) was almost certainly Zeffirelli’s film version, in 1990. I soon followed it with Kevin Kline’s version (on VHS). But it could be argued that you can’t really experience Hamlet until you’ve seen it performed on the stage. The trouble is, I’m not completely sure when my first time was. But one of my first times was on Thursday, August 20, 1992, at 12:30pm. It was in a dusty, cavernous chamber which once served as a storage building for public transit buses — in fact, the venue was called “Bus Barns East” — the unpretentious heart of the Edmonton International Fringe Festival.

Alas, I don’t remember much about this production, but thanks to the archivists’ paradise that is the internet, I can access a PDF copy of the 1992 Fringe Festival program to refresh my memory. On page 93, the production Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is described thus:

The classic – live, simple, and direct! (Inspired by the “rehearsal clothes” production of the 1960’s, starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud).

I’ll get to that reference in a bit; at the time, it meant nothing to me — but then, I was merely 18, and had only recently begun by foray into Shakesgeekery.

The production was 150 minutes long — that’s way long for a Fringe show, but reasonably brisk for Hamlet — and was directed by David Sivertson and Anton Solomon, the latter of whom gets top billing in the cast, as well. There are eight names listed in the cast, although I know that one of them didn’t actually appear onstage (again, more below). But I’m not convinced it was that small a cast, so there may have been names left off the program (which is not surprising, since everything tends to happen last-minute at Fringe Festivals).

(Incidentally, I might as well point out that 1992’s Fringe marked my own playwriting and directing debut. My show, Alone, was being done down the street in the old Masonic Hall. It was kind of a fantasia about Edgar Allan Poe. If you’re curious, the details are on page 41 of the same Fringe program. My buddy Tony did the sketch of a raven!)

Two other sources are onhand to help rekindle my 23-year-old memories of the show. My own diary entry from August 20, 1992, mentions Hamlet, Prince of Denmark as one of several plays I took in that day. My one observation about it was effusive: “with the most incredible sword-fighting ever seen.” At this point, there’s no way to find out who the fight choreographer was, but given the cast’s connections to the U of A’s Drama Department, I’m guessing it was probably Jean-Pierre Fournier.  I wonder how many times that grand master has choreographed Hamlet?

My second unlikely source is my best friend’s journal. I’ve had them kicking around for almost ten years, since we almost sort-of lived together in Edmonton (long story). I had been planning to return them to him this June, when I visit him in Toronto, and to that end, I recently brought them out of storage and (I swear!) one of them fell open to a page marked “Thursday: Hamlet.” I had forgotten that J. was with me on that outing, but given that he was only in town for the summer, we were pretty much inseparable. He actually took notes during the show, which make them more illegible than mine, but far more comprehensive. I trust he will forgive me for transcribing them here:

like the opening, energy high
Claudius looks promising.
Laertes doesn’t show understanding.
Polonius, Gertrude & Hamlet, O.K.
Hamlet a bit hard to understand.
Impressed w/ director/actor movement & blocking.
Don’t particularly agree w/ Horatio’s delivery, too recited
Hamlet talks TOO FAST
* Polonius enter “My liege” & Gertrude & Claudius make out on the couch. { Pol. More matter, less art.
{Words, words, words}
R&G: The fat one balances the skinny one: R-fat
Cut: R&G audience with C&G
R&G w/ H when mad with wind
North by Northwest
Female Player!?
Gak! Male player. His acting is as dull as his thoughts.
I don’t like the pipe on stage.
Hamlet seems more sane, controlled. Seems less confused than I expect.
Horatio reminds me of the Priest from Jennie’s Story.
King laughs before stabbed? Wasn’t well enough led up to.

From what I can tell, J. was not overly impressed; mind you, he didn’t make any reference to the sword-fighting. His notes indicate more than a passing familiarity with the play, including one reference to a specific scene that had been cut (probably the first audience that R&G have with Claudius and Gertrude, at the top of 2.2). One of his most obscure notes, “Those damn toes!!” actually jogs my memory — the actor playing Hamlet was barefoot during his “antic disposition” scenes, and I remember he had unusually long, almost prehensile toes which he used to freak out Polonius (and, apparently, J.).

Although neither one of us mentions this, I am pretty sure I recall one other significant staging choice: this production’s Ghost never appeared on stage; rather, his lines were pre-recorded (by Tom Peacock, a legendary actor and theatre educator in Edmonton) and then played back, accompanied by a spotlight on an empty part of the stage. This must be the part of the production “inspired by” Gielgud’s Broadway production of 1964, in which the director himself supplied “the off-camera voice of the shadowy Ghost,” as David Bevington describes it in Murder Most Foul. It wasn’t a successful choice, putting the Hamlet actor into the unenviable position of reacting to empty air; although since J. doesn’t complain about it in his notes, and I don’t bring it up in my diary, I should perhaps say that it was merely a dull choice — or, given the economical nature of most Fringe shows, a necessary evil.


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