An exciting new Hamlet for the park: a review

Kevin Sutley, Bobbi Goddard, Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

By Liz Nicholls,

“Is not this something more than fantasy?”

The guards on duty in Elsinore are talking about a dead king who’s been appearing nightly from behind his official royal portrait. They’re right on another count, too.  Something fresh and startling is happening in the park. And you should be there for it.

At the centre of Marianne Copthorne’s dynamic production of Hamlet is a performance of captivating intelligence and originality from a young actor who will engage you every moment he’s on the stage. Which is, incidentally, a lot of moments, since Hamlet talks more, by a ratio of two to one, than any other character in the Shakespeare canon.

He’s Hunter Cardinal. And (famous lines notwithstanding), he speaks our language. In this startlingly vivid and natural performance, the actor takes charge of the most celebrated role in English theatre, one haunted with the ghosts of the great Shakespeareans who have occupied it, and makes it his own.

The Hamlet you meet in the park is neither a bookish recluse (a perpetual philosophy grad student probably writing his thesis on existential dilemmas) nor a reluctant action hero. He isn’t the outside observer; he’s neither paralyzed by moral distaste nor self-loathing. No, the performance brings us up close to an intense, passionate young man living a nightmare of loss, grief, and betrayal in a dangerous, corrupt world.

This Hamlet looks, and feels young: he’s comprehensibly impulsive, quick-witted and quick to act. He’s likeable; the word Cardinal’s Hamlet most anatomizes, in every nuance, is “friend.” For once it’s believable when Claudius late in the play plots to exploit his “free and open nature.” And Cardinal’s Hamlet is funny, in a way that turns scalding on a dime when it’s galvanized by outrage. He’s an exciting actor to watch.

Ashley Wright and Hunter Cardinal in Hamlet, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ryan Parker.

The production runs a fleet two-and-a-half hours (which in Hamlet terms means that considerable trims are the judicious work of Copithorne). But it seems faster than that; it flies by. There’s a thrilling sense of forward propulsion about the whole show. And Matthew Skopyk’s eerie, often dissonant score, and underscoring, are a very striking participant.

Hamlet’s youthful radar is fine-tuned to hypocrisy detection and absurdity. And that, and not a predisposition to meditation, seems to propel him from grief toward the character’s great soliloquizing explorations of what it means to be human. “To be or not to be” or “o  that this too too sullied flesh” aren’t so much explorations of the largest human questions of life and death, but  visceral, believable, immediate responses, moment to moment.

There is, arguably, something to be lost, a certain over-arching grandeur, in that. What you gain is a kind of kinetic dramatic engagement with a young character whose struggles and rage you feel you understand.

Ophelia is a problem character in contemporary productions. The history of Hamlets onstage is littered with forlorn, bedraggled Ophelia’s. Hamlet’s doomed girlfriend, apparently railroaded into betraying her beau by a bossy windbag dad. How did these two get together, you’re apt to wonder.

Gianna Vacirca is exceptional; she’s sparky and knowing, not quite deferential to authority. She winks at her brother behind Polonius’s back as he dispenses endless father advice. Her reaction to Laertes (Nathan Cuckow), his father’s son in pompous advice-giving, gives off a soupçon of irony.

So you can understand the mutual attraction between Vacirca’s Ophelia and Hamlet, intensified when as Vacirca presents her, she’s more substantial. And you can certainly understand the intensity of Hamlet’s feeling of betrayal when she betrays him to the plot hatched by her dad.

There’s an electrifying moment in Copthorne’s production when Hamlet realizes that an encounter with her is a set-up. She’s caught in the act, guilty in a look, and for a second the world of young love stands still. In this striking performance she seems to be undone by her own part in the plotting: the madness scene, which replaces shreds of Hamlet’s love letters for the flowers that Ophelia strews, is hair-raising.

Ah, hypocrisy and treachery: they’re everywhere in Elsinore. As designed by Jim Guedo, and useful for the multi-door farce that is The Comedy of Errors (on alternate nights), Elsinor has a chilly monumental aspect,  a court maze of plotters and spies. Ashley Wright turns in a fine performance as Claudius, the capable, professionally cordial, ruthlessly decisive usurper who’s murdered the old king. He has never expected to feel the pangs of conscience, you glean, and it’s unsettled him to the core.

Here, Claudius’s relationship with Gertrude, the excellent Nadien Chu,  is playful, close, and affectionate. So there’s something tangible for Gertrude to give up, as Hamlet gives her the appalling goods on her consort. She ever so gradually cools and congeals in her behaviour toward the latter.

Robert Benz is equally fine as Polonius, a comic, maddeningly self-important figure who’s not without real concern for his kids. And there are fine performances from both Bobbi Goddard as Horatio (an easeful gender-cross for Hamlet’s best buddy) and Nathan Cuckow as Laertes.    

On opening night, punctuated by rumbles of thunder (in addition to Skopyk’s ominous score), Mother Nature took the perverse tack of providing a ray of sunshine every time the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Kevin Sutley) appeared. He couldn’t have looked more corporeal if he’d grabbed a mike and said “hello, Edmonton!” Then, as a summer sky darkened gradually, you realize again that there’s something quite wonderful about locating a great tragedy in the world — outdoors, lived in, moving. And there’s a production in the park and a hero ready to haunt you. Don’t miss the chance.



Theatre: Freewill Shakespeare Festival

Directed by: Marianne Copthorne

Starring: Hunter Cardinal, Gianna Vacirca, Ashley Wright, Nadien Chu, Robert Benz, Bobbi Goddard, Nathan Cuckow

Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park

Running: through July 15, even dates (alternating with The Comedy of Errors, odd dates and matinees)

Tickets: or at the gate

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