Review: Prince Hamlet (Why Not Theatre presented by Canadian Stage)

Why Not Theatre and Canadian Stage presents an ASL integrated Prince Hamlet in Toronto

Why Not Theatre along with Canadian Stage presents a version of Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, unlike any you’ve likely seen before. Directed by Ravi Jain and integrating ASL seamlessly into the performance along with gender bent characters, this version of the Bard’s classic is jagged around the edges and very provocative. It’s simply stunning to watch.

In Prince Hamlet, the cast begins the show by introducing themselves and their characters doing so both spoken and in ASL. Dawn Jani Birley plays Horatio and acts as the visual ASL translator for the show and yet she is not simply off to the side translating when her character is not in scene, her visual translation helps breathe life and nuance into the performance making this whole experience something that can be equally enjoyed by the hearing and the hearing impaired.

Prince Hamlet is a production that is striking to all the senses — the set by Lorenzo Savoini is visually sumptuous but yet simple at the same time. The most prominent aspects of which are the piles of dirt surrounding the stage giving a grungy feel to the atmosphere while also providing an element for the actors to kick around and interact with. The trio of full-length mirrors at the at the back, as well, are a tremendous addition to the set — they extend what is actually a small stage to feel much larger. They offer a chance for the actors to turn their backs to the audience without ever losing visual contact making personal moments feel that much more intimate.

This performance, gender bending aside, is a step away from your standard production of Hamlet and may not be as easily accessible for those unfamiliar with the original play. Nonetheless, out of all the Hamlet productions I’ve seen, this takes the cake as my favorite rendition. What seals it are the superb performances by the cast and the leaps the production takes in direction and staging that give new perspectives to classic scenes.

Christine Horne is phenomenal as Hamlet. She plays the character with such bravado and scorn and delivers a wonderfully demanding presence on stage. As does Birley as Horatio. Though hearing audiences may not be accustomed to seeing a hearing impaired actor on stage communicating in sign, her mannerisms and emotions and the way she sharply punctuates her ASL is truly something to behold. I may not understand the sign language but her character and intentions come across loud and clear.

Rick Roberts as Claudius delivered a beautiful monologue with his back to the audience while looking at himself in the stage mirror. The effect of which was so powerful it was hard not to feel like we were intruding on a significantly private moment. Jeff Ho as Ophelia, during his descent into madness, digs into a pile of dirt and practically buries himself in it.

Another great aspect of this production is how ASL is not just as a way to ensure that the show is accessible, but it also becomes a vital communication tool within the story. Often Hamlet and Horatio can be seen communicating in sign around others so that they can’t be understood. I love the scene with Hannah Miller as Guildenstern trying to command Hamlet’s attention only to be shut down by Horatio proudly mocking her in sign. A satirical version of Not My Hands ensues which had me cracking up. Also as significant is the way the final dual is directed with Birley’s signing as the focus.

Prince Hamlet is a fantastic way to experience one of the Bard’s finest plays that is perfect for the hearing and the hearing impaired. This production manages to hit all the right creative notes across the board and it shouldn’t be missed.

 Details:

  • Prince Hamlet is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until February 24 2019
  • Performances run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8:00 pm with Wednesday matinees at 1:00 pm and weekend matinees at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets range from $49 to $79 with special seating reserved for preferred ASL viewing.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416 368 3110.
  • Run Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
  • Audience Advisory: This production contains theatrical haze, strobe-lighting effects, loud noises, and sexual content. Viewer discretion is advised.

Photo of Christine Horne and Karen Robinson by Bronwen Sharp

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