Theatre review: this Hamlet is Electric

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You don’t have to look very hard to see the influence that Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre has on this Hamlet.

iPods, iPhones and ghostly kings that cause television interference are a few of the updates in director Kim Collier’s modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, currently on stage in Vanier Park as part of the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival.

Perhaps better known for her work as one of the co-artistic directors of Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, which itself pushes the boundaries of conventional theatre, it isn’t surprising to see Collier pushing boundaries once again in one of Shakespeare’s grandest works.  In this Hamlet she takes the Bard’s Danish tragedy and places it inside a present-day high-end mansion, and along with the various Apple electronics, even manages a rather surreal interpretation of The Murder of Gonzago, with the help of some live video projected on the curtains at Elsinore.

Jonathan Young, Craig Erickson and Naomi Wright in the Bard on the Beach production of Hamlet. Photo by David Blue.

Jonathan Young, Craig Erickson and Naomi Wright in the Bard on the Beach production of Hamlet. Photo by David Blue.

Of course, no manner of theatrical tricks or time-tinkering can take the place of an actor up to the challenges of the melancholy Prince.  And while Jonathan Young, another Electric Company alum, flexes his acting muscles with masterful finesse, he finds himself working against the world that Collier has chosen.

Collier has chosen a world that is so new and fresh for her vision of Hamlet that it is at times a distraction.  Where it can be lauded as helping to make Shakespeare more accessible to modern audiences, it does remove the spotlight on the brilliance of the actors and their words to the time and place.  While we feel Young being torn apart by his perceptions of right and wrong, truth and lies, good and evil, and he is able to effectively pull us inside his conflicted mind, the external world he must inhabit becomes an unnecessary interruption.  Each time Hamlet reaches for his iPhone for the next song on his playlist or as the ghostly spectre of his father wreaks havoc on the Elsinore security cameras, our focus is immediately drawn away from the text and the emotion.

Where tears are not uncommon as Ophelia descends into her own madness, Rachel Cairns doesn’t quite generate that emotional connection, which is surprising given her brilliant performance as Viola in Twelfth Night.  Jennifer Lines’ gender-bend as Horatio is as a surprising as Collier’s decision to make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Naomi Wright and Craig Erickson) a couple, but unlike the other superfluities in this Hamlet, they are only briefly considered and then accepted.

Pam Johnson’s set effectively transitions from the turn-of-the-century seaside hotel of Twelfth Night to the austerity of a modern castle with a million-dollar view any Vancouverite would covet.  Nancy Bryant’s costumes are a wonderful mix of Holt Renfrew couture and Winners hipster sheik.

New this year is the use of microphones on the actors to help with sound issues that have dogged the festival main stage in previous seasons.  Viewed perhaps as a controversial choice by Shakespeare purists, if it is a trade-off between not being able to hear the actors inside the massive tent and tradition, I for one am glad of this particular modern-day enhancement.

Given Young’s terrific performance in those moments where he isn’t distracted by his modern setting, one can’t help but imagine a different production of the same show. Perhaps one that isn’t quite so Electric?


By William Shakespeare. Directed by Kim Collier. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage at Vanier Park through September 12, 2013.  Visit for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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