Goodbye, sweet prince
Parting from Keanu is sweet sorrow for MTC and local fans
by Riva Harrison
"TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE."
That classic line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet perhaps best sums up actor Keanu Reeves, who has thrilled theatre-goers from all over the world at Manitoba Theatre Centre with his vibrant and often-charming performance as the brooding Danish prince.
"I know it sounds trite these days, but he's an artist in a world that's full of practitioners and pretenders," Hamlet director Lewis Baumander says of Reeves, who wraps up his three-week run as the Dane tomorrow.
"It takes an extraordinary human being to resist the temptations that are thrown in his path. Keanu's an artist who remains true to himself. He continues to work on his performance and he will not stop until closing night."
As an actor, best known for his roles in the hit movies Speed and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Reeves was at his best in this Hamlet when he was required to use his body to project his agony, torment, hostility, bitterness and madness.
Pacing across the stage like a stalking panther, Reeves nailed the action scenes - charming as the stumbling, sarcastic madman; fiery and passionate as the angry Dane dueling for his life.
On opening night he was only mediocre during his soliloquies, particularly "To be, or not to be" when he rushed and slurred his words. However, by mid-run, he was speaking more slowly, enunciating better and injecting heart-felt emotion into Shakespeare's most meaningful lines.
"OK, so he blew a word here, he rushed a line or two there. Did he hold your attention for three-and-a-half hours? Did he carry that play on his back? Yes he did," Baumander says.
"Every individual moment was not brilliant but overall there were individual sequences ... marvelous bits of work that would stand up to anybody's Hamlet anywhere.
"His 'Oh what a rogue and peasant slave' (soliloquy) was among the finest I've ever seen."
A majority of theatre-goers agreed.
"He's an excellent Hamlet. He was right to take the challenge," says Jheri Raymond, a 73-year-old Shakespeare buff who has seen many Hamlets since penning his high school essay in 1939.
"It was an excellent, well-done production from every aspect."
As a person, the Beirut-born movie star lived up to his advance billing; he was quiet, unassuming and courteous to those around him. He asked for no special treatment and often walked to Manitoba Theatre Centre from his hotel.
Only once, when his mother was in town for the show, did the $7-million-a-movie man rent a limousine to take them to and from the Market Avenue theatre.
And if Reeves deserved five stars, it was for the way he treated his fans. Every day for two months, he patiently signed autographs - often for two to four-hour stretches at a time.
"My respect for Keanu as an actor was already very high, my admiration for Keanu as a human being is now equally great," says Steven Schipper, MTC's artistic director.
Baumander says if he had one complaint, it was the lack of attention paid to the rest of the play, which included stellar performances from Stephen Russell (Claudius), Louisa Martin (Gertrude), Robert Benson (Polonius), Donald Carrier (Horatio) and Andrew Akman (Laertes).
"I would have appreciated people dealing with the production as a whole and not just Keanu. There were 26 people on that stage, there was a costume designer and a set designer," he says.
"Some of the scenic elements were absolutely extraordinary... that opening sequence, the music, the lighting, the costumes, the smashing of the stained glass window.
"There were many, many sequences that were just beautiful to look at."
Schipper says he's sad it's over, but is pleased Reeves has introduced a whole generation of young people to "the power and potential of live theatre."
Does the success of Reeves' Hamlet mean Schipper will be courting another Hollywood hunk for next season?
"No," he says with a chuckle. "We'll just continue to look for the best actor who's available and wants the part. If they happen to be a movie star, that's a bonus."