Centuries after its composition, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet remains a powerful cultural force in the world. Its oft-quoted words, “to be or not to be” are particularly salient with the approach of final exams. The breadth of its impact on popular culture, ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Paul Cernea’s Hamlet RPG, stand as testaments to the pervasiveness of Shakespeare’s work. Yet, despite its influence, the dramatic, dated language of Hamlet is nonetheless somewhat of a barrier to modern audiences. This barrier is precisely what Players’ Theatre latest production, Fortinbras, seeks to dismantle. Directed by Claire Hill, Fortinbras presents itself as an ‘unofficial’ sequel to Hamlet. The show attempts to explore the themes of truth and action present in Shakespeare’s work in a more modern and accessible way involving a mix of comedy and more colloquial, 20th century diction.
Beginning with the final scene of Hamlet, Fortinbras is centred around the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, and his recent acquisition of Elsinore Castle, the residence of Hamlet’s now deceased family. Hamlet, along with his dead relatives, however, return as ghosts to haunt the halls of Fortinbras’ castle, and hilarity ensues. While the cast comically questions the potential absurdity of Shakespeare’s original tale, they still take the time to muse on deeper, philosophic questions. Fortinbras rides a fine line between comedy and drama, and Players’ Theatre, mainly through their strong cast and solid direction capitalizes on this notion.
Oscar Lecuyer (Fortinbras) brilliantly captures and displays both the comedic and serious dimensions wrapped up in the character of Fortinbras through a mix of his commanding voice and quirky body language. Alexander Friesen (Osric), perhaps the comical highlight of the play, often provides great comical relief through his twitchy eye and facial movements and is elegantly foiled by Maka Ngwenya’s (Horatio) calm and composed demeanor. Seb Mattey (Hamlet) likewise demonstrated a strong performance, consistently capturing the melancholic anger of Hamlet through clear and sharp diction in the face of the surrounding comedy.
Hill’s decision to incorporate the extras carrying props and set pieces into the scenes themselves was also a great use of her cast, as it simultaneously justified the presence of otherwise seemingly random prop holders and heightened the comedic effect of certain scenes. Having Hamlet acknowledge and curse out the two extras holding the castle walls in place post monologue, for example, was a surprising burst of comedic relief and continued the breakdown of traditions pervading the play; however, these same extras also hindered the play quite significantly at times, as they literally blocked the main actors in the foreground. Such blunders ultimately hindered the suspension of disbelief at times, as the staging directly blocked the audience’s access to the narrative.
Nonetheless, in addition to a strong cast, Hill’s spin on the production through her direction allowed it to truly come alive for the audience.
“I first became aware of this play in my freshman year of high school during a one-act theatre competition,” Hill said in an interview with the Tribune. “Fortinbras gives me the opportunity to poke fun at Hamlet while reinforcing Shakespeare’s fundamental messages regarding the importance of truth and action.”
Hill developed multiple clever ways to modernize the performance. For example, the fear encapsulated in the opening scene, where Hamlet’s family lies murdered, is augmented through the use of radio static that accompanies the arrival of Fortinbras’ army. Similarly, whenever characters experienced moments of revelation or grief, an accompanying contemporary song, usually a widely known Red Hot Chili Peppers song, would fade in with the revelation, thus using relatable exposition to explore underlying themes. Despite the aforementioned minor set problems, Players’ Theatre’s latest production is a hilarious success.
Fortinbras runs from Nov. 18-21, and then from the 25-28, 8 p.m. every night at Players’ Theatre (3480 Rue McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students, $10 general admission. Email [email protected] for reservations.