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Seven-and-a-half-hour Hamlet ‘mutation’ sells Shakespeare short

Ray Conlogue

There is no question that Hillar Liitoja is talented. Also that he is exasperating, self-indulgent to the point of bullet-headedness and, not infrequently, exquisitely boring.

So, if you are told that he has staged a seven-and-a-half-hour version of Hamlet at the Theatre Centre on Lippincott Street, you will be prepared for all of the above, won’t you? As for the matter of the length, that requires explanation.

Into this “genetic mutation” of Hamlet, Liitoja’s company has interjected a vast amount of performance art. To give just one example, the bearing on of Ophelia’s body – normally about 10 seconds’ business – takes a good 15 minutes. Since it is one of the more beautiful sequences in the show, it is worth describing further to give an idea of Liitoja’s approach to the stage.

The body is borne by four courtiers, all female, dressed in contemporary, pressed black pants and white blouses, like upmarket hotel doormen. It is on a canvas stretcher. Ahead of the pallbearers a fifth person solemnly carries a small portable tape deck, almost invisible in the darkness, save for the mysterious red dot of the “on” light. It is playing a balletic marche funebre that I couldn’t identify: just a snippet of the piece, a haunting melody about a minute long, endlessly repeated on the tape loop.

With each repetition, the pallbearers repeated a simple choreographed movement: stop, take a single step to the left, raise the free arm to the forehead in a slow military salute (except that the hand finishes up in front of one’s eyes rather than against the forehead), step back to the right, proceed forward several steps; stop and repeat as the melody begins again.

Somehow the visual image of these young women executing a military salute in respect to the death of another young woman, but varying the hand position to suggest covering the eyes against weeping, all of it executed with extreme formality, adds up in that mysterious way expressionist theatre works, to create a deeply moving image. The 15 or so minutes of this entrance pass in a moment.

The show, on which Liitoja has worked for a long time, uses various techniques. By contrast with the formality just described, there is the fencing scene, which is staged almost languidly and casually. That is, Claudius and Gertrude leisurely sit at table while Hamlet and Laertes clumsily sort through swords, try them out, dawdle and think. When the match begins, there are several rests during which their faces are wiped.

Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine almost casually; Claudius’s attempt to restrain her is sotto voce, as though he were afraid to be overheard. She collapses quietly forward onto the table. When Osric some moments later notices her, his outrcy goes unheard. The fencing continues. Everything seems to take forever; as indeed it does, in real life.

The result is that “tragic” emotions seep away. The viewers find themselves tittering during the lengthy pauses. Because of our freedom to move around the playing area, people skulk about to get a better view, now of Laertes’ corpse, now of Hamlet. The paradoxical effect of this anti-illusionism is to involve the viewer more deeply.

Having underlined several of the show’s strengths, I must go on to explain why I feel it is a failure; or at least, that it is not anywhere near complete.

First, there is Liitoja’s habit of working with a mixture of professional and amateur actors. Nineteen of the 23 performers are amateur. An extremely controlling director such as Liitoja – he literally wanders through the performance, urging his actors on, sometimes speaking sharply to members of the audience if he feels they’re in the wrong place or looking in the wrong direction – needs a corps of malleable actors.

In his case they are usually very young, with limited skill in voice and movement, and clearly doing exactly what they are told. One youth spends nearly an hour pacing slowly on a balcony: a “guard” at Elsinore castle, presumably. Six young women at another point make a neat line facing the audience and shriek at the top of their lungs on cue. And so on.

It is one thing to use such actors in your own script; it is another to ask them to speak Shakespeare. Whenever they try to do so, the meticulously crafted illusion immediately tears.

The principal actors also are deficient. Sky Gilbert plays Claudius as a leather queen, which is possible but entirely gratuitous. He also speaks blank verse in dull and bombastic fashion. The marvellously craggy-looking Ed Fielding plays Polonius, but takes the character’s slowness of speech too far, dragging the words out to the point of distraction. Shirley Josephs’ Gertrude has poise and speaks passably well, but is far from Stratford quality.

Ironically, the most interesting work comes from one of the amateurs. Kirsten Johnson’s Ophelia is technically deficient – she doesn’t begin to deal with speaking the verse – but she has an affecting transparency of emotion and has evidently thought a great deal about what kind of girl Ophelia might be. This Ophelia gets tongue-tied; she fades away in mid-sentence, terrified of the patriarchal males around her. Her anger emerges in the peculiar uncomfortable way she holds her body.

Here the natural talent of the actor works well with Liitoja’s imagination. In the madness scene, the “flowers” she hands out are, in fact, fruits and vegetables, which she hurls at her tormentors, and squashes obscenely on her chest. It is a remarkable scene.

Andrew Scorer’s Hamlet is often effective because the bald and athletic Scorer, with those glinting hooded eyes, is a charismatic personality. He is also capable of awesome sustained energy, and occasional finely nuanced suggestiveness.

Just as often, however, he is a bull in a china shop. And often his most famous soliloquies are delivered in a mutter while others speak over top of him. This serves Liitoja’s ideas about deconstructing the text, but doesn’t make Hamlet’s job any easier.

Thematically, Liitoja seems to be exploring the authoritarianism of Claudius’ court. There is more than a hint throughout of a sado-masochistic sexuality. But the show is far too loosely and sloppily staged to admit much discussion of Liitoja’s intentions. At the moment, neither his purposes nor Shakespeare’s are well served.

The Globe and Mail
January 23, 1989