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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet


It never feels like summer until I’ve been to see a play at the Stratford Festival. This afternoon, I met my mom there to see a matinee of Hamlet, one of my favourite Shakespearian plays.

There have been a lot of changes at the Festival in the past year – the long-time artistic director retired after last season, they hired three new ones for this year, but two of the three left after only a few months. A good majority of the long-term actors are not there at all this year. (No Brian Bedford! This might be the first year I’ve not seen him in a LONG TIME.) The Shakespearian plays all seem to have a bit of a modern spin to them, which I’ve never enjoyed, but will go see anyway, and you can tell that they’re desperately trying to attract different people there. Some of the new cast (or at least some of the new cast that WAS supposed to be there, but no longer are) were supposed to appeal to a younger audience, and they are doing some different things with tickets that I think is a really good idea.

You can still buy regular tickets that are WAY SUPER EXPENSIVE, through one of the deals for various age groups (which they’ve had available for a few years) or you can get your tickets through a lottery-type-thing. My mom and I decided to go with the lottery – we paid $20/ticket, didn’t know where we were going to be sitting until after we had paid, and had ended up in section C in the balcony. Not ideal seating, but compared to the $60+ it usually is for a ticket… WELL. Plus, after we had been seated and right before the play started, the usher said everyone in the C section could move over to the B section as there were many empty seats – DEFINITELY better seating.

First thing I really noticed when I arrived at the Festival Theatre this afternoon was that they moved the gift shop back to where it was a few years ago. Seemed a little pointless to me to move it in the first place if you’re just going to move it back. Not that I don’t prefer this location – it’s probably got the same area, but feels a lot less crowded. Besides, I love the Theatre Store. Can always find some really fun stuff there – this year, I think my geek purchase might be a Shakespeare Rubber Duck. Hmm.

The big change that had me shocked, though, was the change to the stage.

Festival Theatre Stage

That’s a picture of the stage of the Festival Theatre, the main theatre of the festival (they have 4 in total) as it has been for a very very very long time. (Click on it to see a larger version.) This year? No balcony in the middle of the stage. No stairs up to the balcony. No walls coming out to the balcony. I was speaking to an usher and she said that they’ve removed it all completely from all of the plays and that it is supposed to be permanently removed. Permanently? Um? Plus, you see the opening behind the balcony? There are two big wooden panels there that open and close when needed. Apparently (according to the same usher) a lot of the people are unhappy about this. No kidding. It’s been used in so many fabulous, creative ways in so many of the plays I’ve seen there, and it breaks my heart that they removed it.

HamletRight. So, now that I’ve spent my time venting about the stage, moving on to the play. As I mentioned, we went to see Hamlet. Also, as I mentioned, they tried to slightly modernize the Shakespearian plays. And the term modernize is used with complete relativity, of course. The play, in this rendition, was set in 1910. So the costumes, sets and music were all inspired by the early 1900’s. It was a little disconcerting at first, but I got used to it for the most part. Aside from the fact that some of Ophelia’s costumes looked like something Anne Shirley would have worn (pre-puffed sleeves) and that some of the mens’ costumes looked like they had been stolen from Captain Jack’s closet. (Yes, I can make anything relate to Doctor Who; I’m good like that.) I enjoyed the music – it blended in really well with the play. But when Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sitting down for espressos, it rather stuck out like a sore thumb that things just weren’t right.

The characters were, for the most part, fabulous. Polonius, the grave digger, Horatio, Laertes and Claudius were all very well done. Polonius was a lot funnier than I remember (been a while since I’ve read/watched the play before this). I love how they dealt with the ghost of Hamlet’s father at the beginning – thought that was handled really well. I wasn’t, however, too fond of this version of Ophelia which is a disappointment as she’s one of my favourite female characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays. And at times I quite liked Hamlet, but at others…

Everything about Hamlet felt very over-dramatic. It seemed like about half of his lines were yelled. And part of what I love about Hamlet so much is that you never know if he’s really crazy, or just pretending to be crazy, or when he crosses the line from pretending to be crazy to ACTUALLY being crazy. In this rendition, you could tell that they wanted you to believe that he was completely crazy right from the moment he walked on stage. From his first soliloquy, where he’s rolling around on the stage, screaming, pounding his fists on the stage, pulling his hair… well, you get the picture. It felt like more than grief or anger at his mother marrying his uncle. And his over-dramatization continued throughout the play right until his death, in which he threw his arms and legs out as he was dying so he looked like he was crucified (not a new thing for Hamlet in death, however, never this over-dramatic). If it wasn’t done so obviously, I would have enjoyed it, but it was overdone as it was.

I haven’t heard or read what anyone else thought of this play. I would be interested in seeing how other people reacted. I suppose I must scourge the Internet at some point tomorrow. Ah well, not every play you see will be your favourite. It was, however, worth the $20 for an afternoon’s entertainment at the Festival. And now, I must wait another five weeks before my next installment of the Festival – my mom and I are going to see Taming of the Shrew in August. Am definitely looking forward to that.

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 10:40 pm July 12, 2008.
Category: Plays

  • Julie

    Hi — I found you via Seasonal Plume. I’m also a web designer who blogs about books :-) and I love your blog. Especially delighted to see you have a category for nautical fiction, which I also adore. It’s been a while since I was last at Stratford and I’m sorry to hear about the changes to the stage.

  • Court

    Julie – Thanks for stopping by! And yes, nautical fiction IS wonderful. :) The changes to the theatre stage are disappointing – it’s one of the most distinctive things about that theatre at the festival. I’m hoping if enough people express their displeasure about it that it’ll get changed back, but we’ll see how that goes.