Toronto Star

Prince Hamlet is a remixed, reinvigorated avant Bard for our times: review

By William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Ravi Jain. Until April 29 at Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W. Theatrecentre.org or 416-538-0988.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet initially seemed like an odd choice as the centrepiece of Why Not Theatre’s 10th anniversary season. This is a company that made its name through its commitment to diversity, risk-taking, and thinking outside the box. So the most famous play in the English language — really?

But this is no ordinary Hamlet, as the tweaked title suggests, and in fact represents a return to first principles for Why Not’s founder Ravi Jain, who launched the company a decade ago with an adaptation of this play.

This all-new staging (produced in association with Soulpepper Theatre Company at the Theatre Centre) is about a lot of things — about who has a voice in society and who doesn’t, about how the way a story is told is as important as the story itself, about the relationship of the disempowered to those in authority — but doesn’t come across as punky or rebellious.

It registers, rather, as the strikingly confident articulation of a director and company that have earned their voice at the centre of Toronto and Canada’s cultural landscape and are using it powerfully. It pushes the company’s ongoing work on diversity to new levels that are in principle daring but — and this is the measure of their success in this area — come across as more matter-of-fact than risky.

Jain treats Shakespeare’s text as a starting point for creativity rather than as something simultaneously sacred and fragile, as remains the default mode for establishment Canadian Shakespeare.

The show starts simply with nine performers walking onstage and introducing themselves and their characters. Everyone signs their first name, the first indication of the central place that American Sign Language holds here. The production is billed as bilingual in English and ASL, something rarely if ever seen on mainstream Toronto stages. Dawn Jani Birley, who plays Horatio, is deaf, and in this adaptation and production her character is central, as important a figure as Hamlet himself.

The action starts with a speech by Horatio cobbled together from dialogue from the original play’s final scene. This establishes the action as Horatio’s retelling of “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” that happened in the past.

This is the only point in the production where another actor speaks along with Birley’s signing; for the rest of the action she moves in and out of the action signing as Horatio and as a narrator for deaf and hearing-impaired audience members.

 

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