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To leave or not to leave – that was the question
First the good news about Hamlet.
The offbeat production now playing at Espace Libre is highly imaginative and tightly disciplined. In many ways, it clarifies rather than obfuscates the text.
The bad news is that this exotic Toronto import, which was supposed to be eight hours long, is actually more like eight and a half. The half may sound minor, but between 2 and 2:30 a.m. lies eternity.
For those who have never attended a play that just won’t quit, here’s a first-hand account from a reporter’s notebook.
6:30 p.m. Arrive at theatre feeling guilty about being late (show is supposed to start at 6 p.m.) and discover a lineup. Told by festival organizer there will be a 15-minute wait.
6:45 p.m. Two actresses wearing black pants and white shirts harass us with lines like “You come most carefully upon your hour,” before allowing us past the box office.
Inside, action erupts randomly. A female samurai warrior (Akascha Kerekes) moves up and down a long ramp. King Claudius (Sky Gilbert) is calmly eating a chicken. Queen Gertrude (Shirley Josephs) sits on a big brass bed, applying makeup.
7:45 p.m. A very bald Hamlet (Andrew Scorer) faces up to his mother and strips off his inky cloak to shed the “trappings and the suits of woe.” We’re still in Act I, Scene II. This doth not bode well.
8 p.m. Polonius (Ed Fielding) is clipping his nails before going to bed. But that’s only one point of action in a multi-ringed circus. A Count Dracula stand-in introduces himself as the Explicator (Adrian Foster). He stands by to fill you in on who’s who and what’s what.
9 p.m. The “teacup dance,” a pure digression in which eight actresses form a chorus line and clink cup to saucer to In the Mood. A couple of saucers break, but the dance goes on, and on, and on.
10:25 p.m. German opera singing underscores the play-within-the-play, which proceeds at a snail’s pace. Reporter writes “pretentious horse ... ” in notebook and decides to take a supper break.
11:30 p.m. Welcomed back by Explicator. Reporter is told that Hamlet has left for England; Rosencrantz (Ken McDougall) and Guildenstern (Daniel McIvor) are dead; and Ophelia (Kirsten Johnson) is going mad. Ophelia squashes raw fruit against her chest to prove her point. When Laertes (Scott Maudsley) makes a roaring entrance, columnist Francine Grimaldi, who has been dozing, snaps to attention.
12:25 a.m. Ophelia has drowned and her portrait is hung in remembrance along with those of the other dearly departed. This is a great way to keep score on the death toll in Denmark. Meanwhile, in limbo, a naked Polonius gets whipped by the Mistress of the Underworld (Rosalia Martini). Totally gratuitous but it raises a few drooping eyelids.
1:30 a.m. Laertes and Hamlet fence. Polaroids are taken and a referee waits for the film to develop before declaring a hit. Hysterically funny, especially when you’re almost hysterical with fatigue anyway.
2:30 a.m. Of an audience of 100 spectators, 31 stalwarts remain. At least six are journalists and three – believe it or not – are senior citizens. Gertie, Claudius and the rest of the folks in the Underworld discuss their inner motivations. The samurai – who just spilled a bowl of chicken guts – now stands starkers like Venus de Milo with arms. Over the sound system we hear the strains of Is That All There Is?
2:31 a.m. Assured by a round of applause that the end has come, reporter departs hastily, in mortal fear on an encore.