Vancouver Sun (Ca), January 14, 1995

Reeves as Hamlet: Not a bad night, sweet prince

(also published on January 14 as a shorter version under the title 'Speed Demon Reeves delivers uneven Prince of Denmark')


by Jamie Portman

A usurping new king and his queen coil and uncoil in elevated sexual ecstasy -- while stained-glass images of the Crucifixion and the Madonna and her child provide an ironic visual counterpoint.

Meanwhile, below and in the foreground, another image is taking shape on the stage of the Manitoba Theatre Centre -- that of a young prince mourning at the tomb of his murdered father.

Such is our first glimpse of Keanu Reeves as Hamlet.

The scene is nowhere in Shakespeare's text -- but it does provide a powerful beginning to what is destined to be the most talked-about production of the current Canadian theatrical season -- a production which sold out its 3 12-week run months before it opened.

It also gives doting fans -- some who have come from as far away as Japan -- the chance to get over their initial excitement at seeing Hollywood's hottest young superstar in the flesh before settling down to the serious business of the play itself.

After all, Reeves himself takes playing Shakespeare very seriously indeed. It really isn't his fault that his celebrity status has stirred up such a media circus: foreign press outlets converging on wintry Winnipeg this month have ranged from the respectable (The Manchester Guardian) to the disreputable (the U.S. tabloid shows, Hard Copy and A Current Affair).

The 30-year-old Canadian actor could have been doing another movie this winter. Instead, reportedly to the despair of his manager, he's chosen to come to Canada's oldest established regional theatre -- a theatre whose total annual operating budget is less than half the $ 7-million fee he now commands for a single movie -- to play Hamlet for a salary of $ 2,000 a week.

Given the glare of public scrutiny, it's a courageous initiative for him to have taken.

But it's also a foolhardy one: This is the Everest of roles for even the most experienced of young actors, and they take it on at their peril. So it's scarcely surprising that this is a frequently uneven characterization. At this stage in his development, Reeves simply lacks the equipment to sustain such a role.

Even so, his Hamlet is not quite the act of effrontery that one might expect. Reeves never disgraces himself. And if some cast members do act circles around him -- notably Stephen Russell and Robert Benson who are both splendid in the respective roles of Claudius and Polonius -- Reeves' Hamlet far outshines the insipid Ophelia of Liisa Repo-Martell and the excessively bland Horatio of Donald Carrier.

What Reeves does bring is a strong and sometimes commanding stage presence, emotional sensitivity and genuine warmth of character, a sleek and assured athleticism, and some refreshing moments of humor.

He's also capable on occasion of surging dramatic power. One thinks for the example of his explosion of rage and psychological pain over the murder of his father, the king, by Hamlet's usurping uncle, Claudius, and the latter's "incestuous" marriage to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.

There's also the sequence when Hamlet feigns madness and assumes his "antic disposition" to deceive the court while he plots vengeance. Here, Reeves' Hamlet is maddening, mercurial, funny and more than a little alarming -- which is exactly what this character should be at this point.

But repeatedly throughout the evening, Reeves is undermined by his own lack of classical theatre technique.

True, he brings intelligence to the role. But -- and this may partly be due to opening night jitters -- there's a real problem with a number of Hamlet's speeches. There's a failure to find the right rhythm, phrasing and cadence, to achieve the fusion of sound and meaning so vital in communicating Shakespeare to audiences.

The soliloquies are particularly disappointing in this regard -- even To Be Or Not To Be is perfunctorily spoken, without conviction or emotional reflection.

But the soliloquies also tend to be staged in a perfunctory manner, lacking the bold theatricality characterizing other aspects of this production. That makes one wonder about the judgment of director Louis Baumander.

Despite some terrific visual effects -- Brian Perchaluk's set design, for example, is a marvelously atmospheric arrangement of ominous grey slabs and arches -- this is a fairly conventional reading of Shakespeare's great tragedy, offering us a prince consumed by both sexual jealousy and sexual confusion.

Hence, there is a closet scene in which Hamlet's actual stabbing of Polonius is allowed to go by in a flash; here, Reeves could have been doing something as mundane as swatting a fly, before getting on to the main concern which is to subject his mother, Gertrude (quiveringly portrayed by Louisa Martin), to a verbal and physical assault that is essentially sexual in nature.

Some aspects of the play seem to interest Baumander far more than others. This can lead to unfortunate choices; for example presenting Claudius and his court in a scene of colorful debauched revelry more appropriate to sun-baked Italy than the grey ramparts of Elsinore.

One, therefore, searches in vain for a sustained dramatic sensibility both in this production and in Reeves' performance. On the other hand, there have been productions of Hamlet far more pretentious and far worse at both Stratford and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And one must give Reeves credit. He is never less than interesting on stage. And on those occasions when he does fail, he does so with honor.

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