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The occasion was the thing

Robert Crew

Hamlet has just skewered Claudius through his studded black leather jacket.

Suddenly a voice rings out through the theatre, saying something like, “Bravo! He deserved it. But you should have done it earlier.”

The voice is that of Hamlet’s dad, the old king. For most of the play, he has been lounging around in the underworld, a balcony high above the action, presided over by a bosomy, florid madam.

After someone is slain, they are greeted by the madam who tells them that they now belong totally to her, and sentences them to 20 minutes of silence. Meanwhile their staring portraits are hung on a wall.

Since we’re now at the final scene of the play, this celestial (or hellish) equivalent of the actors’ green room is pretty crowded. Rosecrantz and Guildenstern are there. So is Ophelia, now dressed in everyday clothes and smoking a cigarette.

All that remains is for Horatio to drink a vial of poison and die, reciting “To be or not to be” – in French. Plus the big clean-up of bodies and more portrait-hanging.

Poor Bill Shakespeare. What a pity he didn’t have the imagination to dream up all this.

But Hillar Liitoja and his often outrageous DNA Theatre did. It may be said, without fear of contradiction, that their production of Hamlet, now at 191 Lippincott St., is not exactly a conventional production of Shakespeare’s classic.

It’s spread out over seven-and-a-half hours (trimmed from the planned nine). This is a Hamlet experience, long on stylized movement, repetition, music and technology, short on text and interpretation. And a lot of it is very boring.

It’s as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to a Ming vase and then tried to glue it back together, discarding the many pieces that don’t fit and substituting others. The resounding unanswered question is why?

Let’s flash back seven hours. We’ve been milling around in the theatre lobby for a while when suddenly a stern man comes in. “You, you, you and you,” he barks. And you follow, meekly, around the back of the theatre – “keep up at the back, there” – and up an iron fire escape. Two guards fire hostile questions at you (roughly based on Act 1, Scene 1), and you are pushed, none too gently, into a darkened theatre.

Strings of naked lightbulbs flash and then dim. Music is pumped through the theatre at deafening levels. A young woman repeatedly bellows a warning: Do not interfere with the actors ... Do as we say or leave.”

Another woman, dressed in red, is perched by a Sears benchsaw. She rings a bell and points occasionally.

Two guys dressed in red dressing gowns tell you (politely) where you can and can’t sit and give bits of advice.

You find a seat, take off your coat and stare around. There’s Claudius pacing up and down. And that one must be Horatio. And that guy with the shaven head and red sleeveless shirt, is he Hamlet?

It’s not long before you realize that there’s no point in sitting in one spot. So you wander up a level; whoops, that must be Claudius (Sky Gilbert) and Gertrude (Shirley Josephs) climbing into bed together. You hurry on upwards, to the underworld. “Only the dead can enter here,” you are told firmly.

So you’ve had a chat with a couple of old acquaintances and explored the environment. Claudius, meanwhile, has got out of bed, dressed and eaten most of a whole chicken.

An hour slips by before Act 1, Scene 2 starts, the first extended passage of text.

The acting, frankly, is not good. The words are delivered with stultifying slowness. Polonius (Ed Fielding) speaks with such leaden, hollow lugubriousness you could swear he has fallen asleep mid-sentence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stutter and scuff the floor bashfully.

The players arrive like bizarrely dressed teenagers going to a prom. They strut their stuff before Andrew Scorer’s Hamlet by doing a little dance to 1940s swing music, clattering teacups and saucers.

There are no set intermissions but you can wander in and out, take a break, returning to the smell of yet more chicken and a fish being grilled.

The play meanders on. A guide wanders over. “I think you’d better clear this area to be absolutely safe,” he says. Moments later Hamlet goes violently mad.

Then it’s Ophelia’s turn. She squishes vegetables over herself and the floor and munches carrot after carrot.

The audience? Well, we’re still wandering around, catching up on gossip and getting to know absolute strangers.

Ophelia’s funeral seems to take forever. There’s a slow march in, headed by someone carrying a small ghetto blaster. The priest drones on and on in Latin.

We’re all getting punch-drunk, even a little giggly. Then it’s all over. Coats abandoned hours ago are grabbed and it’s off into the night.

And do you know, I actually enjoyed myself. The occasion, rather than the play, was the thing.

Toronto Star
January 23, 1989