Alas, Poor Keanu is No Classic Actor
by Vit Wagner
If this really is to be Keanu Reeves’ excellent Shakespearean adventure, then he’d better start figuring out how to have some fun.
In what has to rank as the Canadian theatre year’s most touted event, the 30-year-old, Toronto-raised megabucks star of Speed and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has undertaken one of the theatre world’s most monumental and exacting challenges: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. How well he fared opening night depends on how charitable one is willing to be, but more on that in a minute.
For Winnipeg, Reeves’ appearance was an unequivocal success long before the curtain came up. The Manitoba Theatre Centre sold out the run’s 22,000 seats well in advance of Thursday night’s opening. When all is said and done, it is predicted the $500,000 production will add $3.5 million to the city’s economy.
Clearly, frozen Winnipeg is relishing its unlikely status as the hot place to be this January. The burning glare of TB cameras and the excited chatter of patrons lent a palpable Broadway sense of occasion to the premiere.
If only young Keanu were enjoying himself half as well. Certainly, purists need not have worried that Reeves would make a melancholy dude of the introspective Dane who procrastinates when called upon to avenge the fratricidal murder of his kingly father. His interpretation is nothing if not sober, earnest and brooding.
Director Lewis Baumander, who also supervised Reeves’ Shakespearean debut in a 1984 Romeo and Juliet at Leah Posluns in North York, wastes no time in putting his star in the spotlight.
The opening tableau, a prelude to the actual beginning of the play, shows Hamlet mourning as his father’s dead body is about to be interred. Reeves, in a shoulder-length wig, tights and rapier, looks the part of the grieving and disillusioned but unmistakably gallant young man.
It is only with his next appearance that the words issue forth. And, boy, do they ever issue forth -- in such a babbling, unintelligible stream that if you didn’t already know the text, you wouldn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
Some of this, no doubt, can be chalked up to opening-night jitters. And there were stretches when he spoke with more composure and clearer enunciation.
Generally, though, the impression is of a relatively inexperienced classical actor for whom being able to recite all those lines, including the long, philosophical soliloquies, is accomplishment enough -- a feat that apparently eluded him during previews.
Reeves said all the words in the right order, but his brisk delivery and vacant expression never convinced you he actually understands what they mean.
And it didn’t reflect well on him that these problems were not encountered by his fellow cast members, including Gary Reineke as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Stephen Russell as the illegitimate Claudius, Shaw Festival veteran Robert Benson as the foolish old adviser Polonius and young Toronto regulars Andrew Akman and Donald Carrier, the latter of whom cut a more dashing figure as Hamlet on the stage at 26 Berkley St. last winter.
Still you have to admire Reeves' resolve. He defied the naysayers who said he would be induced to throw over the Manitoba centre at the drop of a $7 million movie deal. He has worked hard to prepare.
For what? For the training. For the experience. Not for the exposure or the money. But no amount of work was going to transform Reeves, whose screen performances even lack actorly skill, into a great Hamlet to rival the memory of Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness or Richard Burton. The best he can do is relax, be himself and damn posterity.
In Speed, the 1994 blockbuster that shot him into the Hollywood stratosphere, Reeves plays a L.A. cop who acts before he thinks. Now he is playing a medieval Dane who thinks but can’t act. A little of that former ease would serve him well here.
There are a number of ways to play Hamlet, including humorously. The character has an ironic, winking disposition, which, when handled properly, can invite a sense of complicity with the audience that softens the play’s more brooding aspects.
This would have been a better choice for Reeves. And you can see how it might have worked.
The chortle that spreads through the audience when Hamlet greets old chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "my excellent good friends" was one occasion when the hushed, respectful opening night audience seemed genuinely engaged.
Reeves also handled himself well in the scenes where a mischievous Hamlet is running verbal circles around Polonius. Even more deft was his mastery of the concluding sword fight.
Fortunately for Reeves, this is theatre not film. His opening-night performance is not etched on celluloid. People with tickets for later in the run will have missed the opening-night hoopla but can take consolation in the likelihood that they will see a better show.