The very heavens opened up and doused Bard on Bower’s opening night of Hamlet with a steady drizzle.
All the gloomy rain might have been a downer for the scant diehards who took in this entertaining outdoor production under tent cover at Bower Ponds on Thursday night, except it actually added to the play’s chilling atmosphere.
After all, William Shakespeare’s great tragedy about murder and ruminations about mortality, vengeance and conscience, hardly deals with sunny subject matter.
Prime Stock Theatre director Thomas Usher further deepened the play’s mood by relocating the action to the shadowy Victorian dockyards, where Hamlet is not the prince of Denmark, but the heir of a wealthy shipping family.
Black poofy skirts and tall stovepipe hats paired with some anachronistic accoutrements lent a steampunk air to this two-and-a-half-hour show.
An invisible ghost with disembodied voice, a thrilling and very authentic-seeming sword fight, and a more-brash-than-meditative Hamlet were other highlights.
Local actor Albertus Koett tackled the role of the grief-stricken heir with head-on aplomb. Rather than playing the hesitant anti-hero, Koett’s Hamlet springs to action — unfortunately, often venting his rage against the wrong people.
Instead of dealing with his father’s murderer, Claudius, he berates and shoves around poor, innocent Ophelia and later gets into a brawl at her funeral with her grieving brother, Laertes. He also slaps his somewhat less innocent mother Gertrude for getting remarried to his scheming and ambitious uncle in unseemly haste.
Koett’s Hamlet is so intense, yet somehow collected, that he can seem too rational to be walking the edge of madness.
But he delivers Hamlet’s speeches with exactly the right sort of cadence to make them easy for an audience to follow. If one might have liked to see more nuance, it was made up for by excellent pacing and no dull pauses.
His “To be or not to be” flies along at a good clip, as does “What a piece of work is a man” and “Alas, poor Yorrick …” — and these brilliant passages are reason enough to see this play.
Of course, the excellent performances give you more reasons.
Other stand-outs are Tara Rorke, as a Gertrude who seems truly alarmed and bewildered by her son’s strange behaviour, and Sarah Gibson, as the pained and emotionally fragile Ophelia. As the former object of Hamlet’s affections, Ophelia seems to suffer merely for being a woman as his anger against his mother transforms into a general misogyny.
Her meddling father Polonius is sometimes portrayed as a clownish bore, but is played pretty straight here by Derek Olinek. Her hot-headed bother Laertes is depicted by JP Lord as the kind of emotional guy who would literally leap into his dead sister’s coffin.
Ryan Matilla portrays the level-headed Horatio, while Tom Bradshaw plays Claudius as more mundane, and therefore more sinister, than a textbook villain.
And Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are depicted by Anna Pinder and Victoria Wells-Smith as female friends of Hamlet’s and his unwitting victims.
Usher is to be commended for assembling such a wonderful cast, for well pacing this production, and for paring the lengthy script down to its essentials. The plot moves along so quickly you should make it out of the park before darkness fully descends.
Even on a sunny evening, seeing Hamlet will be a treat — especially if you studied the play in high school (it’s amazing how vividly the speeches come back to you).
Bring bug spray, a lawn chair and blankets, sit back and enjoy.
Hamlet is on the outdoor stage from 7 p.m. on July 19, 23, 27 and 31, and at 2 p.m. on July 26 and Aug. 2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream starts on July 24 at 7 p.m. Admission to both is free, but donations are very welcome.