Plays & Players (US), March 1995


by Robert Tanich

From the way some people carried on when they heard that Keanu Reeves was going to play Hamlet, you would think that all he ever acted was the dumb, hyperactive, adolescent Dude in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure in 1989.

Reeves, born in Beirut but raised in Toronto, first acted in Shakespeare at drama school in 1985 when he played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, directed by Lewis Baumander. Since then he has played Trinculo, the clown in The Tempest, in Pennsylvania in 1989 for Shakespeare & Co and Don Juan in Kenneth Branagh's film of Much Ado About Nothing. He was good casting for the plain-dealing villain; unfortunately, an already small part had been so severely trimmed that there was not much for him to do but look evil, which he did most handsomely. He has also acted in My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant's reworking of Henry IV Parts I and II. His role of bisexual hustler was a Prince Hal of sorts, who rejected not only Falstaff, but, in the film's most moving scene, the love of a poor rent boy, superbly played by the late River Phoenix.. The Shakespearean language was translated, not very successfully, into modern American street-slang.

About ten years ago director Steven Schipper had auditioned the young and then unknown Keanu Reeves for Sam Shepard's Unseen Hand in Toronto and had had to reject him because he was too tall for the role. In August 1993, he invited Reeves to play Hamlet at Winnipeg where he was artistic director of The Manitoba Theatre Centre, Canada's oldest regional, English-speaking, professional theatre. Reeves, who longed to play Shakespeare again, accepted. This was before the huge success of Speed at the box office had turned him into a superstar. Having given his word, he turned down a major role in a movie opposite Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and, it was reported, something like $7 million in order to earn $2,000 a week. There were those, who thought it was foolhardy to be risking his reputation in this way when there was no need. There were others, who thought it was a brave and honourable thing to do and that he would be the better actor for playing Hamlet.

There was only one way of being absolutely certain of obtaining tickets and that was to become a theatre-subscriber and buy tickets for the whole season of six plays, which included Oleanna, Six Degrees of Separation, The Sisters Rosensweig and three modern Canadian plays. By the time the booking had opened to the general public, out of the initial 22,000 tickets, only 2,500 were left. The production was completely sold-out long before the first night, smashing all box-office records.

If Reeves had thought he could come to Winnipeg and only Winnipeg would see his Hamlet, he was in for a big shock. Women came from all over the world. They came from the United States, Australia, Germany, Japan, Italy, Taiwan, Finland, Sweden and England. One Australian woman came for a month and saw the play twice a week. An Englishwoman saw it nine times in thirteen days. A German saw it on five consecutive days. Endless baskets of flowers and presents were delivered daily to his dressing room. The girls, aged between 18 and 30, used to stand outside the stagedoor, day in day out, in the freezing cold (it was minus 25 Celsius when I was there) waiting for a glimpse of their idol. Reeves did not disappoint them, sometimes staying up to two hours, chatting and signing autographs.

Winnipeg has a population of but 652,000 and manages to support not only the world famous Winnipeg Ballet, but also theatre, opera, a symphony orchestra, a chamber orchestra, independent filmmakers and an art gallery housing a superb collection of Inuit art, which includes some fine modern, stone sculptures of arctic, malevolent, mythical, sea creatures.

Now, though it is possible to see a great deal of modern Canadian writing, there is, in fact, very little opportunity to see classical theatre performed professionally. The last Shakespearean production was A Midsummer Night's Dream and that was two years ago. It is within this context that Keanu Reeves's Hamlet has to be judged. His real success has been to bring the world's most famous play to a lot of people who wouldn't normally go anywhere near Shakespeare. The important thing about his visit is not his effect on visitors and fanatical fans from abroad; what really matters has been the effect Reeves has had on the city's young people. It is hoped and expected that a high percentage of them, who became first-time theatre-subscribers, will be coming back for more plays next season; auld that was the whole object of Steven Schipper's exercise.

Lewis Baumander's production opened with a tableau of Hamlet grieving over his father's tomb while his mother and uncle copulated in the nude on the ramparts high above him. It ended three-and-a-half hours later with his death. Fortinbras did not appear. Hamlet died sitting on the throne of Denmark, fondling his dead mother's hand. Poor Horatio (who had, no doubt, been looking forward to Hamlet dying in his arms) had to say the famous lines, "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" while he was standing next to him. The lines became a perfunctory aside, totally lacking in poignancy.

Reeves spoke his lines clearly but there was little going on behind the lines and the lines tended to run into each other. He rattled through the last act. The facial expression was limited. He was far more confident with the prose than he was with the verse and the soliloquies. He was much better when he was able to get rid of his wig and reveal his own familiar, cropped hair. He was at his happiest when Hamlet was being larky and in moments of anger. He practically raped Gertrude. He was at his best riling Rosencrantz ("Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?") He fought an exciting duel.

The production, the set and the acting were all surprisingly and disappointingly old-fashioned. The action did not flow, the scenes ending in blackouts rather than dissolves. The blocking was poor. Tables, chairs, and chaise lounges were brought on for no good reason and then had to be taken off. The actors stood around in costume. There was an unconvincing orgy with fire-eaters. ("What does this mean, my lord?" asked Horatio, as well he might, the scene not being in Shakespeare and quite superfluous.) The set was so designed that the actors had to run round one massive pillar, if they were not to disappear from sight and lose their lines.

The fact that Reeves was playing the Prince produced an unexpected, yet quite legitimate, laugh when Laertes asked Claudius why he hadn't killed Hamlet. Claudius replied that he couldn't possibly kill him because he was so greatly beloved of the people; the audience laughed because Claudius was so obviously irritated and jealous that they should love Hamlet and not him. The supporting actors, with the exception of Louisa Martin (Gertrude) and Gary Reineke (First Grave Digger), were either miscast or their performances were too superficial to be able to provide the safety-net Reeves should have had.

(snipped a few paragraphs about other Winnipeg plays)

It is estimated that Keanu Reeves brought more than $3.5 million to the city's economy. (I hope that some of that money is put back into the theatre!) I asked Reeves on the last night what other Shakespearean role he would like to play. He said Edmund in King Lear. I asked the girls who they would like to see next. "Brad Pitt!" they cried. Now that's a thought. How about Brad Pitt in Tennessee Williams's The Class Menagerie?

Article Focus:



Hamlet , Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure , Romeo & Juliet , Tempest, The , Much Ado About Nothing , My Own Private Idaho

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