REEVES AS HAMLET? IT LOOKS GOOD ON HIM
by H.J. Kirchoff
Let's get the most important point right out front: Keanu Reeves is not a bad Hamlet. I've seen better, I've seen worse.
He did not embarrass himself in the Manitoba Theatre Centre's Hamlet which opened Thursday night, and that was a considerable risk for the hunky Hollywood superstar, who made his fame and fortune mostly in film roles that could generally be described as bimbo-esque. He didn't really need to return to the stage to take on arguably the most difficult, complex role in the Shakespearean canon. But he did, and it looks good on him.
All right, he won't make anyone forget Geilgud or Branagh, or even Mel Gibson, but Reeves remembered all of his lines -- all 1,500-plus of them -- and delivered them without a hint of "hey, dude." If anything, he overenunciated, carefully pronouncing every consonant in the text ("bit-ter.") After a shaky half-hour or so on opening night, in which his voiced sounded breathless and thin, he limbered up and began speaking with punch and vigour, and a lot more assurance, and his delivery of the famous monologues was plain-spoken and clear. He is undeniably better in the more physical scenes and with the larger emotions; he does anger and madness well, but his brooding seems more like fretfulness. And he does look great in tights.
Director Lewis Baumander -- who directed Reeves in Romeo and Juliet at Toronto's Leah Posluns Theatre many years ago -- seems to have gotten the max out of his young star, partly through intensive coaching, and partly by tailoring a large-scale, extravegantly visual production that well suits Reeves' undeniable physical presence. His fatal duelling scene with Laertes (Andrew Akman), arranged by fight director B.H. Barry, is sprawling, violent and scary.
Brian Perchaluk's set -- a gothic creation of enormous stone pillars, arches, buttresses, platforms and stairways -- simply shouts "castle," and Debra Hanson's costumes are elaborate, colourful and bejewelled confections that would fit right into the court of any Renaissance prince. There's enough velvet in this show to clothe Winnipeg.
Baumander has surrounded his star with a generally strong supporting cast. These are mostly veteran actors who know what diction is and don't have problems "speaking Shakespeare."
Stephen Russell and Louisa Martin are especially good as Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet's uncle and mother. Russell is a particularly smooth-talking and decadent Claudius, murderer of the late king (his brother and Hamlet's father) and usurper of both the throne and the widowed queen. For her part, and in keeping with the tone of the production, Martin is a very sexual Gertrude.
(In one very interesting directorial touch, Baumander opens his Hamlet with the Prince standing silently over his father's body, while above and behind him, in hot red lighting and little else, Claudius and Gertrude perform a stylized, graceful and pretty mime-dance of lust. Apart from anything else, this gives the audience a look at Reeves, permitting his more vocal fans to get their cheers and moans and swoons out of the way before the play actually begins.)
Robert Benson, decked out like a Borgia cardinal, is a superb Polonius, holding a fine edge of dignity while playing the fussy pomposity for laughs. Liisa Repo-Martell is at the other end of the scale as Ophelia, Hamlet's sometime love interest; her mad scenes are good in a twitchy sort of way, but she seems far out of her depth through most of the play. Nor was I much impressed by Gary Reineke, who gave the same bland, restrained tone to both the Ghost and the Player King, and barely loosened the stays for a jokey turn as the Gravedigger.
Baumander and the MTC were clearly intent on doing it up big for Reeves, and so they have. He, in his turn, has given them a credible performance and a red-hot ticket -- Hamlet is already sold out for its entire run.