Review: Hamlet Live

Hamlet Live turns a classic into a sublimely creative post-apocalyptic adaptation

How many times and in how many different places have you heard the phrase “To be or not to be, that is the question?” The words are spoken by Hamlet, the son of a murdered king, in what is probably Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet. It has inspired so many cultural adaptations from the Lion King to an episode of The Simpsons, which surely means that most people have been exposed to this enduringly popular story.

Hamlet Live is an adaptation of original Hamlet (from the late 16th or early 17th century, depending who you ask), written in the Shakespearean language but with modern day costumes and a post-apocalyptic atmosphere. It’s written and performed in the same vein as the Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, which made it relatable to a 2012 audience.

I have never seen a Shakespeare play before. I’ve actually read Hamlet in high school, along with Shakespeare’s other more famous plays, but always had a teacher to guide me along or someone’s borrowed copy of Coles Notes to help get me by. I wasn’t sure how well I would fare or how much I would understand, but luckily had my English major roommate with me to consult in the case of a Shakespeare emergency.

In case you didn’t read Hamlet in high school, I’ll give you a very brief rundown of the story that is actually Shakespeare’s longest play. Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, is murdered by his own brother, young Hamlet’s uncle named Claudius, who then goes on to marry the dead king’s wife, Gertrude. King Hamlet’s ghost appears to Hamlet, telling him to exact revenge on Claudius, thus beginning Hamlet’s slow descent into madness.

The cast of Hamlet Live did an excellent job of retelling this well-known story. They made it very understandable so that anyone could enjoy it, whether you were completely new to it (like I was) or a seasoned vet (like my roommate was).

My favourite actor was Ralph Small who played Claudius. He had such a commanding and lively presence while he was on stage that I could barely look away whenever he spoke. Scott McCulloch, who played Polonius, offered a great deal of comic relief in this tragic play, something that the audience thoroughly enjoyed.

What I liked most about this adaptation was the cast’s use of the stage. Characters would often enter, or exit, the stage past behind where the audience was sitting, making for a unique theatre experience. But perhaps the best part of all was the cast’s use of suspended pieces of fabric that hung from the ceiling. These long pieces of fabric were tied and knotted and the cast members would shimmy up them and perform elaborate acrobatic sequences that were mesmerizing to watch. Hamlet would knot and climb his way to the top and perch high above Claudius as he performed a monologue while Ophelia would use it one as a swing when she had begun to lose her mind.

The best use of these strands of fabric was a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, the son of slain Polonius who wanted to avenge his own father’s murder. Each actor tied themselves onto separate strands of fabric in positions that became increasingly difficult, with each being more impressive than the last. As they fenced from the air in unbelievable positions, I was beyond impressed by their strength and ability to deliver their lines while in such compromising positions!

I highly recommend seeing this play if you are able to. If you can’t make it to the theatre, the play offers a live stream that can be watched from your computer, truly making this a modern day experience that is completely unforgettable.

Hamlet Live is playing at the Annex Theatre on 730 Bathurst
– The show runs from January 26 until February 11
– Ticket prices range from $5-$40
– Tickets are available online or at (416) 538-1772
Photo by Christos Tsirbas