I wanted this play to have a special post, just because of my love of Hamlet in general as well as the special experience I was able to have with it.
The thing that I noticed right off the top and which will always make this production stick out in my mind was how Hamlet was portrayed. We’re all very used to a thoughtful, pensive and hesitant Hamlet in words as well as action. Jonathan Goad’s Hamlet was almost manic in his actions, making his monologues far more like a stream of consciousness. It was amazing to watch him bounce between ideas and really get us all wrapped up in his ideas and in his “feigned” madness.
The set for the show was stunningly simple, with large black obelisks essentially becoming anything and everything they needed to be. From the parapets of the castle to gravestones to the chapel to Gertrude’s chamber, they were everything and so beautiful. I loved how the costumes were so bright, but not patterned, so their colours created a blindingly stark contrast to the black if the pillars as well as Hamlet’s. They also used light exceptionally well, particularly the light coming from the trap door. At the beginning, that’s how we first see Hamlet, and it’s also how we finally see Hamlet as he is lowered into his grave.
The acting, on all parts, was riveting. I know this play so well, and yet I cried from the scene of Ophelia’s madness all the way until the end; continuous streams of tears as things just went from bad to worse and then some. The audience is forced, because of the lack of extravagance in the production, to truly focus all of their energy on the story, and it truly made it a far more moving experience than I have ever had with this particular play.
What made our experience so special was the literally life changing opportunity my sister and I were fortunate to have; we were got to shadow a performance of Hamlet. It started with a quick backstage tour and a chat with some of the dressers for the show, then onto fight practice before they got into their costumes (both the leads and the understudies take part in fight practice, just in case). Then we separated, and I stayed backstage for the first half of the show. It was awesome; the actors and crew were so welcoming and made us feel comfortable in their space.
I loved getting to see the infrared camera to see everything during the blackouts. It was also amazing to listen to the radios and how the cues are given: there are so many more people backstage for just one performance than I had ever imagined.
I got to sit in the Stage Manager’s booth, high above the stage, for the second half of the show. The perspective is totally unique, and while there was barely room for the all knowledgeable SM and myself, it was amazing to watch her work. What I loved most was getting to ask her questions about what it’s like to work with directors and what advice she had for me as a director; she was wonderful, and made the whole thing so perfect.
But there was one moment, this amazing moment where I realized the true caliber of the Stratford Festival and really understood what it was to work with a professional theatre company. For the scene in Act Three where Hamlet and Gertrude are talking in her chamber, they had this beautiful bed which rolled out onto the stage on a hydraulic system. Then the notice comes over the headset: “The bed didn’t go down.” “What?” says Annie. They repeated themselves and Annie asked who all was aware of the malfunction. Unfortunately the actress playing Gertrude (the ever amazing Seana McKenna) was not, as she had gone to her place in the vom before the problem was detected. The flurry of talking and attempted solutions flooded the radio as the scramble ensued backstage (as I was later informed by my sister). The came the moment of truth, when they were supposed to sit on the bed. Polonius (Tom Rooney) was already dead behind the bed, and Seana just barely touched it with her hip and it glided ever so slightly away. Of course, the blocking changed instantaneously as Seana redirected Jonathan Goad over to the stool in the chamber rathe than the bed. She handled it flawlessly. “The next time’s worse though” Annie reminded me, as Ophelia was supposed to push Horatio onto the bed. I’ll never forget, she turned off the radio, looked at me and said “What should we do?” I had no clue, “Can we shore it against one of the pillars?” I asked. But then Annie reminded me that those slid too, made easy to move by felt on the bottom. Then the word comes through “We got it!” They had made it work again. In a matter of a few minutes they managed to have it ready for the next scene it was required in.
I was blown away, and I always will be, by those moments: the shock, the anxiety, but also the teamwork, the troubleshooting and the relief when all was right again. It was astounding.
When it was all over, we were met with plenty of goodbyes and were full of stories to tell. That kind of experience can never be replaced, and I’m so thankful to have had it.