“Himpathy” for the Devil?

Reflections on Hamlet 911.

Note: I attended a matinee performance of Hamlet 911 in early August during previews. It is possible that some of the staging I reference below has shifted since then.

The creators of Hamlet 911 have the best of intentions – or so interviews and related publicity materials would suggest. “Based on an idea developed by Alisa Palmer, Vita Brevis Arts,” the Ann-Marie MacDonald play stages the shifting socio-political landscape of a fictionalized Shakespeare festival. More specifically, it aims to address the canonical (white) supremacy of Shakespeare and the urgent need to embrace new voices, actors, and perspectives – to respond to the painful disclosures of anti-Black racism and discrimination in professional Canadian theatre, including the Stratford Festival, which cohered under the #InTheDressingRoom hashtag in spring 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. Premiering at the Stratford Festival in August 2022 with a large cast of talented IBPOC actors, Hamlet 911 tries to be a salve to these wounds. Ultimately, however, the production falls short of achieving its goal, centering rather than decentering whiteness in the intertwined narratives of its two white cis-gender male protagonists and failing to give its IBPOC characters the multi-dimensionality they deserve. 

The central protagonist is Guinness Menzies (Mike Shara), a middle-aged white actor with long-standing professional and personal ties to the festival, who grapples with the inevitable challenges of playing Hamlet – never a small deal given the 400 years of ghosts that haunt the role. Marital strife, a possible claim of sexual harassment, and the death of a father complicate matters further for poor Guinness, who slips into an altered state – is it a dream? a coma? death? – where he is met by Yorick, a Shakespearean Fool/Trickster figure (Gordon Patrick White). [Yorick’s appearance in this play nods to MacDonald’s earlier success with Shakespearean adaptation, Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning, Juliet) which likewise featured a Fool character aiding the protagonist, a queer white woman]. With punning charm, Yorick guides Guinness to some form of self-discovery via time jumps and the rewinding and replaying of past events – including conversations with his father Rex Menzies (Scott Wentworth), a legendary actor at the festival who was there when the festival tent was raised; and his young wife Sue (Amelia Sargisson), who is playing Gertrude to his Hamlet in a pointed critique of the industry’s chronic ageism. 

While Guinness struggles to gain his temporal bearings, a 14-year-old white boy named Jeremy (Andres Iles) spends time searching for answers in dark corners of the web. He is a fan of Menzie’s tv persona from his starring role in Suburban Vampire Dad and looks to him to embody the father figure he has lost. When Guinness ignores his gushing fan letters, Jeremy spirals into despair and suicidal ideation. 

Surrounding these entangled tales of white male pain are a host of marginalized characters who, in director Alisa Palmer’s staging, are literally positioned on the margins of the playing area for many of the scenes. I caught glimpses of what the play might have been when two of the characters supporting Guinness’s Hamlet – Jenna (Eva Foote) as Ophelia and Danny (Micah Woods) as Marcellus – step into the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia respectively when Guinness is injured in a bicycle accident and decides that he is unable to perform. Jenna and Danny ably assume their new roles – a white woman as Hamlet; a Black man as Ophelia – offering snippets of speeches that hint at possible narrative paths abandoned by MacDonald and Palmer. But neither Jenna nor Danny is afforded much in the way of psychological complexity: save for Jenna’s stirring monologue on the personal and professional risks of reporting incidents of sexual harassment, the audience learns little about their home lives, their training, their passions, the road that has brought them to this juncture. They are little more than two-dimensional supporting characters; this is not a slight on the actors who do their utmost with the limited material they’ve received.

Instead, the play revolves around its two central white male protagonists and its effort to lead its audience to feel “himpathy”, by which I refer to the term first coined by Kate Manne to “encompass all of the ways we collectively ignore, deny, minimize, forgive, and forget the wrongdoing of men who conform to the norms of toxic masculinity, and behave in domineering ways towards their historical subordinates: women.” We are meant to gasp at Guinness for striking his wife in a moment of anger but are nudged to forgive him when he expresses regret and a desire to take-back the moment, Mulligan style, via a theatrical time-loop. We are meant to empathize with his difficult childhood, marred by cardboard cut-out portrayals of an alcoholic mother and a bombastic, cheating father whose close-minded lament about cultural transformation at the festival is voiced in a lengthy monologue that received rousing applause at the matinee I attended. MacDonald and Palmer presumably intend for the audience to recognize the flaws in Rex’s thinking – but Wentworth’s charismatic performance and the text’s winking nod to Stratford’s own storied past (the glory of tent raising) undercuts the critique. We are likewise meant to feel sorry for the confused teen trapped by the lures of the Internet. In one truly distasteful moment, a series of ropes dangle from the catwalks as Jeremy prepares to take his life, surrounded by young children bearing placards with reasons given for what (I imagine) were actual teen suicides. The moment feels exploitative and cheap. And the sight of dangling ropes in a production featuring so many BIPOC actors struck me as poor taste at best and viciously racist at worst. 

Hamlet 911 tries hard to atone for the sins of its many festival fathers, to create space for new voices. But in the end, the production does the opposite, aggressively recentering not only whiteness but excusing misogynist behaviour by pointing to broken homes, unreceptive mothers, and difficult fathers as the cause of white male suffering. Ultimately, the play celebrates its white male characters as they overcome their demons but it pays little attention to the effects of their behaviour on those around them. In a season featuring the Stratford Festival’s first Black woman as Hamlet, this production feels like it is trying to reassure its dominant audiences that the status quo will prevail. This was never clearer than during the curtain call when Iles and Shara took the final two bows surrounded by a company of supporting actors of colour whose stories have yet to be told. 

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