Review: Hamlet (Tarragon Theatre)

Photo of Hamlet ensembleTarragon Theatre delivers Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet through a rock n’ roll lens in Toronto

There is something to be said on whether or not the type of music integrated into a show can help reimagine a well-known story. Tarragon Theatre’s Hamlet applies a rock and roll ‘lens’ to a familiar tale.

The results don’t rewrite the book, but when a production’s this good, it’s hard to argue.

The story remains the same: Hamlet (Noah Reid) is upset when his mother Gertrude (Tantoo Cardinal) marries his uncle Claudius (Nigel Shawn Williams) not long after the death of his father. When he encounters the ghost of his father claiming he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet sets out for vengeance.

I still don’t know what’s meant by a rock and roll ‘lens’. At best, the live music incorporated into Hamlet becomes ambiance; a constantly running soundtrack to events. At worst, it interrupts circumstance, lending a considerable silliness to emotional scenes.

In other words, sometimes its great, sometimes, its not.

Initially, much of the music serves as a character beat. Hamlet is punk rock—screaming petulantly into the microphone; there’s the exuberant jazz of Claudius’ new-found power and, of course, the heavy metal of the in-show murder drama put on at Hamlet’s request for his new father (and shout out to the vocals of Beau Dixon in that specific sequence).

Those beats, however, fall to the wayside as the show progresses, slipping into a live soundtrack. And there are definite trade-offs in the staging department. Using handheld microphones, the cast is reliant on being near a mic stand or using only one hand.

My guest and I both agreed that the whole process is at times distracting. And yet, depending on the music in the background, those microphones are the only reason you could hear what was said.

Still, there are definitely some clever moments where the set is seamlessly incorporated into the action. Cliff Saunders, pulling double comedic duty as Polonius and the gravedigger, gets some of the best moments. Particularly the gravedigger’s scene where he becomes a stand-up comic, pulling for audience participation comes to mind.

Thinking about those early musical choices, however, I do feel there is something unique to be said for this specific production.

Director Richard Rose seems to hold a natural dislike for Hamlet as a character. On Tarragon’s stage, his ‘madness’ is little more than an excuse to finally voice his contempt at the world. As he screams and angsts and decides his actions have merits, it’s those around Hamlet who are punished. And Reid, as the lead, gives an excellent unlikable performance; he is pitiful like a worm, and his interactions make you unable to root for him, even as you see why he makes his choices.

Take one of the breakaway scenes of the evening: Hamlet tearing down Ophelia (Tiffany Ayalik), who has been set up to help reveal his madness, is taken by his misplaced frustration at her perceived rejections. Ayalik delivers a figure whose poise is being held against her as Reid stalks close, almost spontaneously screaming the nasty commentary and their implications into his microphone with a sick pleasure.

It was uncomfortable to watch as he dehumanizes her.

Ophelia, Polonius (a hilarious turn by Cliff Saunders), Gertrude,  Rosencrantz (Rachel Cairn), and Guildenstern (Jessie LaVercombe), are all sacrifices to that singular cause—destroying Claudius.

The cast here is pretty much perfect, but I think the whole show comes down to the characterizations. I, personally, have never liked Hamlet, so it’s interesting to watch a Shakespeare adaptation that agrees. My guest, a Hamlet fan, noted his love for Ayalik’s portrayal of Ophelia is amazing and integral to the show’s success.

There’s nothing fundamentally new in Tarragon Theatre‘s Hamlet, but there’s definitely something worth taking away from it. You can’t go wrong with that.


  • Hamlet plays until February 11, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm with matinees Wednesdays at 1:30 pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm
  • Tickets are $60, $49 for seniors, and $29 for students.
  • Audience Advisory: Show contains haze and fog

Photo of Hamlet ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann