What! (Ca), February / March 1995
Keanu Shines as Hamlet
by Stu Slayen
When movie giant Keanu Reeves signed on to play Hamlet at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre the critics, and some fans, were skeptical. He's a little more than skin, some said of the heart throb. They were less than kind. They were also less than correct.
The 30-year old Reeves has proven himself a legitimate acting force time and time again in film hits like Speed, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, My Own Private Idaho, River's Edge, Dangerous Liaisons and more. His performance as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, on a midwinter prairie stage confirmed what I already believed - Keanu Reeves is a most excellent actor.
William Shakespeare's Hamlet has long been considered one of the theater's most grueling roles. Demanding an exhaustive emotional range, physical agility and the delivery of some 1 500 lines, the role is reserved for the select few. Reeves proved himself worthy of the part with fluid body movement, convincing facial expressions and clean, well-enunciated delivery of the bard's script. Most of the cast was strong (Gary Reinke was brilliant as the ghost of Hamlet's father) with exception of Lisa Repo-Martell who played Ophelia, the love of Hamlet's life. Keanu Reeves outperformed her by miles and their scenes together were somewhat uneven as a result.
Hamlet, as I recall from my Coles Notes, is the story of a prince whose mother and uncle marry after the death of his beloved father. His father's ghost comes to Hamlet and reveals that he was poisoned by Uncle Claudius who wanted the queen and the throne. The ghost wants Hamlet to take revenge on his step-father, the new king.
To see his uncle/step-father's reaction, Hamlet stages a play wherein a king is killed. Uncle Claudius is scared out of his tights and banishes Hamlet to England where he is to be killed. Hamlet escapes, returns to Denmark and finally gets to fulfill the ghost's wishes.
But the real story here wasn't the prince, the poison or even the performance but rather the presence. The fact that Keanu Reeves was here at all was big news.
The show sold out and people came from all over the worked to catch a glimpse of Keanu. One of the local newspapers had a "Keanu Hotline" so people could calling when they spotted the guy. A local TV station interviewed the manager of the restaurant where Keanu spent New Year's Eve. The newspaper reported how he accidentally left his credit card at a men's clothing store. Mall security paged him and shoppers flocked to the store in anticipation of him coming to pick up the card. (They were disappointed when a friend returned instead.) One of our music writers saw him alone eating a piece of cake at a local pastry joint on Christmas Eve. His every move was watched of this eight week stay.
My favorite story is about a couple of young girls who saw Keanu and some fellow cast members eating lunch at a restaurant on a rehearsal break. They pad the busboy two bucks for Keanu's cutlery and even dove into a garbage can after his half eaten bread roll.
Keanu Reeves' visit was big news, but apparently not big enough to tell the world. The theater, Reeves and the actor's managers decided that there would be no national or international media interviews during his stay. He's uncomfortable being interviewed, rumor has it, and his management probably didn't want to make a big deal about their $7 million per movie star doing regional Canadian theater. Keanu did eight interviews - ten minutes each - with two local papers, four local TV stations and two local radio stations. The interviews were done on the day he arrived (December 8), probably before the plane had even cooled on the tarmac. What! A Magazine's request for an interview was turned down as were request from People, A Current Affair and other international media.
(I watch two of the local TV interviews. During one particular, Keanu was so uncomfortable it looked like he was sitting on thumb tacks. And the interviewer asked such riveting questions like, 'what do you like better, film or stage?'. Keanu must have stunned the viewers when revealed that he likes them both. Wow! I hope the National Enquirer doesn't get a hold of that tidbit! It could be splattered all over supermarket checkouts!)
So Keanu was here. Canadians didn't get to hear any great insights and only a few spent any time with the man. But we did get to see a true master at work. And that's what's important. After all, it was Shakespeare himself who wrote - "The play's the thing."