Speed Demon Reeves delivers uneven Prince of Denmark(also published on January 14 as a longer version under the title 'Reeves as Hamlet: Not a bad night, sweet prince')
by Jamie Portman
Winnipeg- A usurping new king and his queen coil and uncoil in elevated sexual ecstasy, while stained-lass images of the Crucifixion and the Madonna and her Child provide and 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 that sold out its 3 1/2 week run months before it opened.
It also gives doting fans (some have from far away as Japan) the chance to get over their initial excitement at seeing Hollywood's hottest superstar (Speed, Little Buddha) in the flesh before settling down to the serious business fo Hamlet itself.
Reeves takes playing Shakespeare very seriously. It really isn't his fault that his celebrity status has stireed up a media circus: foreign press outlets converging on wintry Winnipeg this month have ranged from the respectable (The Guardian) to the direputable (the U.S. tabloid shows, Hard Copy and Current Affair).
The 30 year old actor, who was raised in Toronto, could have been doing another movie this winter. Instead, he has chosen to come to Canada's oldest established regional theatre (a theatre whoe total 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 own peril.
So it's scarcely surprising that this is a frequently uneven characterization. At this stage in this 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's 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 athleticismm, and some refreshing moments of humor.
He's also capable on occasion of surging dramatic power, such as his explosion of rage and psychological pain over the murder of his father, the king, by Hamlet's ursurping uncle, Claudius, and the latter's "incestuous" marriage to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. But repeatedly, 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 th fusion of sound and meaning so vital in communicating Shakespeare to audiences.
The soliloquies are particularly disappointing in the regard, even To Be Or Not To Be is perfunctorily spoken, without conviction or emotional reflection.
One 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 the 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.