To be or not to be: Hamlet served six ways, from Thou Art Here Theatre

By Liz Nicholls,

The time is out of joint (I think we can all agree with Prince of Denmark on that).

Isolating, infuriating, anxiety-making, rippling with hints of mortality and “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” … does that ring a bell at this moment of history where we’ve found ourselves.

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Hamlet was on it, four centuries ago. And an experimental mini-series created by the adventurous Edmonton indie theatre Thou Art Here — a “site-sympathetic” company that takes Shakespeare on location to the people — will deliver six different Hamlets, one a week, direct to your place.

With Hamlet in Isolation, every Friday for six weeks starting May 21, we’ll get to see a different Albertan actor (one who’s never played Hamlet before) have at the most celebrated role in English theatre. And as befits the COVIDian regulations of the moment, the complex and compelling character that every actor dreams of making their own, won’t have to share “the stage” with anyone else.

In partnership with three directors and an original (eight-page) script fashioned from Hamlet’s seven signature soliloquies, the six actors, one a week, perform from their homes, solo and live-streamed on a variety of digital platforms, including YouTube and Twitch. Thou Art Here co-founder (and now artistic associate) Andrew Ritchie says the instruction to director-actor partnerships was alluringly open-ended. “Here you go! Run with this and see where you take it.”

Shrouded in mystery Hamlet may be, as four hundred years of wildly divergent interpretations attest, but the guy is voluble, no question. He has more lines to speak, by a ratio of nearly two to one, than any other character in the Shakespeare canon. And he talks to himself. In his pinnacle soliloquies — “to be or not to be,” “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,” “how all occasions do inform against me” and the other heavy-hitter monologues — Hamlet thinks aloud; he shares his thoughts with the audience; he meditates; he assesses and reassesses what it means to be human.

The play he stars in is Shakespeare’s longest — so long it’s almost never performed un-cut. Hamlet in Isolation takes that trimming further (into bite-sized pieces of half an hour or so), directly into Hamlet’s consciousness. Ritchie cites a scene in the very funny Canadian series Slings and Arrows, set at a Stratford-like Shakespeare festival, in which an actor freaking out as he prepares to be Hamlet gets sage advice: “just nail those monologues, and everyone will go home happy.”

Via the soliloquies we venture into the minds and sensibilities of six different Hamlets, chosen, says Ritchie, “from a public audition call that got a big response. So many artists looking for work….” And there’s a striking variety in their backgrounds, in experience, in aesthetic, in gender. “We’ve never collaborated with any of them before,” says Ritchie, one of the three Hamlet in Isolation directors, of the artists assembled for the project. “And that’s very exciting.”

Director Sydney Campbell, for example, is an improv and sketch comedy star, half of the queer sketch duo Gender? I Hardly Know Them. Desirée Leverenz, who also directs, is the artistic director of the experimental performance ensemble The Orange Girls. Marguerite Lawler (Lavinia in Theatre Network’s The Society for the Destitute Presents Titus Bouffonius), one of the Hamlets, is an actor with starry improv cred.

The original Thou Art Here idea, he says, was to “take Hamlet to five different sites.” Act III, in which the court gathers to watch a play, was to be in a theatre; Act V, when the bodies really pile up, in a graveyard.…

The current pandemic restrictions in Alberta made that unworkable. Instead, you get a one-on-one with Hamlet. Scenographer Elise Jason has extrapolated for their design from the soliloquies and the enforced intimacy, in the six at-home settings where we find the performers.

“When you watch several (episodes), the pieces will be in conversation with each other,” Ritchie hopes, “an interesting exploration of the text” affected by who the actors are since they’re filmed in their own personal habitat.


Hamlet in Isolation

Theatre: Thou Art Here

Directed by: Sydney Campbell, Desirée Leverenz, Andrew Ritchie

Starring as Hamlet: Philip (Lin Hackborn), Dayna Lea Hoffmann, Deedra Salange LaDouceur, Marguerite Lawler, Andrés Moreno, Kiana Woo

Where: performed and streamed live online

Running: May 21 through June 25, Fridays at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: fringe, pay-what-you-will

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