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Amaka Umeh is engrossing and revelatory in the Stratford Festival’s ‘Hamlet’

Amaka Umeh is engrossing and revelatory in the Stratford Festival’s ‘Hamlet’

Amaka Umeh is engrossing and revelatory in the Stratford Festival’s ‘Hamlet’


By William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Pasyk. Until Oct. 28 at the Festival Theatre, 55 Queen St., Stratford. or 1-800-567-1000

A new era dawns at the Stratford Festival with Amaka Umeh’s revelatory performance in the title role of “Hamlet.”

Umeh, a Black woman, is the first actor of color to play the role in the festival’s history, and inhabits the character with full emotional and physical commitment, speaking the beautiful and often familiar lines as if they are coming to her fresh and in the moment.

The tortured, grieving prince is still referred to as male: the invitation to the audience is to embrace the actor in the role with everything she brings to it and Umeh is a brilliant anchor of a production communicating the paranoia of a contemporary surveillance state.

This version cuts out the larger context of a feud between Denmark and Norway, and casts the audience itself as the observers who are making King Claudius (Graham Abbey) mighty nervous. The play opens with the royal guards dressed as slick-suited security (costume design by Michelle Bohn), speaking into their cuffs and casing the audience.

Peter Pasyk’s staging at the Festival Theater is at its most confident in such moments when it uses the entire theater and implicates the spectators directly in the action. Another such moment is the start of the play-within-a-play sequence, when Abbey’s Claudius and Maev Beaty’s Gertrude descend the central aisle in royal regalia to the sound of fanfare (sound design and composition by Richard Feren) and the ever present security guards watch us as we watch them.

While the first scenes are low-key, Umeh’s performance and the production as a whole spring to life when Hamlet’s university friends Rosencrantz (Norman Yeung) and Guildenstern (Ijeoma Emesowum) arrive. Hamlet, finally at ease, transforms from tense and sullen to physically alive and vocally expressive, and the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the traveling players (led by the impressive Anthony Santiago as the Player King) crackle with liveliness and humour.

Having Hamlet narrate the play-within-a-play on a hand-held microphone is a smart choice, both to underline the character’s control over that sequence and to ensure audibility — some actors in early scenes were difficult to hear.

The pace in the long first act is quick and engaging, though there are moments in the second in which energy dips.

The central feature of Patrick Lavender’s set design are walls of tinted glass, which sometimes serve as mirrors and at others, with shifts in Kimberly Purtell’s lighting, reveal action behind them, as when Claudius and Gertrude appear in a passionate embrace behind the glass while Hamlet speaks disgustedly of their hasty marriage.

Cellphones also figure: Hamlet’s love letters to Ophelia are text messages, and Horatio (Jakob Ehman) films Claudius’s reaction to the play within a play on his phone. Because they’re relatively sparing, these gestures add to the production’s sense of timeliness.

There are other elements of staging that feel less integrated into the production and come across as intellectual constructs: for example, the running trope of a dead body appearing under glass on the stage floor (is Hamlet imagining this? who else can see it?) . There’s a sense that some of these moments will fill out with meaning as the production matures through the summer.

Abbey, Beaty and Michael Spencer-Davis as Polonius are strong anchors of an acting company featuring a number of exciting talents making their Stratford debuts, including Austin Eckert as Laertes, and Matthew Kabwe as the ghost of Hamlet’s father and an amusingly plain-spoken Gravedigger .

Overall, the resounding reason to see this show is Umeh, to revel in her engrossing characterization of a young person fighting to make sense of a terrible loss and the terrifying world around them. I’ve never seen a Hamlet guide the audience through their feigned madness more clearly and convincingly, and Umeh rivets attention in monologues that take us deeply into her character’s thoughts and feelings.

This production is dedicated to the memory of two beloved Stratford Hamlets who died in recent years — Brent Carver and Christopher Plummer — and Umeh is poised to join their ranks as a great performer of Shakespeare’s major roles. Her success paves the way for further progressive casting at Stratford, in which actors are selected for what they can bring to their roles and open up new meanings in familiar texts.


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