Anxious Danes - Anxiety and Surveillance in an Updated Hamlet

It is no secret that Stratford’s 2022 season has brought much attention to the Festival in its second year open since the 2020 COVID-19 closures. This season has seen the programming of three world premieres, adaptations of classic stories like Little Women and Molière’s The Miser, and a new version of Kander, Ebb, and Fosse’s Chicago – but featuring brand new choreography by Donna Feore instead of Fosse’s iconic choreo. Other significant inclusions to the season are Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize-winning Death and the King’s Horseman and three inventive productions of works by William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well, Richard III, and Hamlet. Out of these three Shakespearean plays, the one that is perhaps most noteworthy is director Peter Pasyk’s refreshing reimagining of Will’s most famous play: Hamlet. This production marks the tenth time that Hamlet has been produced at the Stratford Festival since its fifth season in 1957. Not only does this new rendition push the boundaries of what has been done at the Festival, but it broadens the possibilities of how casting, focused direction, and clever adaptation can be used to produce this play effectively and imaginatively in 2022.

Since it was first announced in 2020, the casting of this production’s titular role and the firsts it brings to the Festival have been widely discussed and celebrated. This season’s Hamlet is played by Amaka Umeh, a Black, genderfluid, Dora Award-winning actor who is the first actor of colour, as well as the first woman/non-binary person to play this much-coveted role at the Festival. Though Umeh uses she/her and they/them pronouns, the character of Hamlet is portrayed as a man in this production, leaving textual references to him unchanged. Playing alongside Umeh is Austin Eckert as Laertes, Michael Spencer-Davis as Polonius, Grahme Abbey as Claudius, Maev Beaty as Gertrude, and Matthew Kabwe as the Ghost to name a few. 

This updated, modernized Hamlet is set in present-day Denmark and focuses solely on the crises within the royal family by omitting the external tensions of the war with Norway and the subplot concerning Fortinbras. While this exclusion strengthens the potency of the familial and personal tragedies that occur throughout the play, the absence of Prince Fortinbras in the final scene creates a bleaker ending in this version. This dismal feeling of uncertainty the audience is left with is consistent with the world created for these characters to live in: a world where privacy is scarce, no one can be trusted, and someone is always watching.

Given the updated, modern setting, technology plays a large part in furthering the action of the play. My initial reaction to seeing smartphones and texting in this production brought up many negative emotions stemming from amateur shows I have seen in the past that attempted (unsuccessfully) to integrate technology into their performance, so I was bracing myself for the worst. Safe to say, I had nothing to worry about with Hamlet. I was impressed with the ways technology was used thoughtfully and tastefully to modernize certain moments and advance the plot. For moments like when Polonius reads Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia, this production chooses to have Spencer-Davis as Polonius gain access to Ophelia’s phone to read her text message conversation with Hamlet. Further, when Claudius and Polonius enlist Ophelia to spy on Hamlet, rather than hide behind a curtain, they pressure her into wearing a microphone wire underneath her clothes so they can listen directly to their conversation. Technology is used similarly in a scene where Polonius calls Claudius on his phone and then hides it in his jacket pocket during a conversation with Hamlet, eliminating the need for him to relay the details to Claudius later. This production’s use of recording devices sets the tone for the anxious atmosphere that permeates the world of the play, creating the feeling that someone is always listening. 

Going further than their use of tech, this production calls attention to the audience’s typical role as an external spectator and actively casts them as such. There are a few instances where Hamlet acknowledges the audience directly by casually gesturing to them, and others where he explicitly invites specific audience members to hold space with him, as in the moment of high intensity where an emotional Hamlet offers the audience to take his pistol away from him. In this way, the audience is recognized as another spectator intruding on Hamlet’s life, one of which he is acutely aware.  Even Claudius is afforded less privacy than in other productions of Hamlet; during the “Mousetrap” sequence, Hamlet asks Horatio to film Claudius’s reaction while the players are performing. By recording this moment, Claudius’s guilt isn’t just obvious, but it becomes transmittable, replayable, shareable, and permanent. This chronic lack of privacy afforded to Hamlet, Ophelia, and even Claudius echoes the reality of our online world: someone, somewhere is always watching, always listening, and nothing is private. 

Hamlet’s “madness” is not only totally warranted, but Amaka Umeh’s anxious Hamlet is believable and absolutely mesmerizing to watch. As a younger actor, Umeh’s age lends a youthful energy that seeps into their performance as well as the show as a whole. Whether Hamlet is climbing up the expansive double-decker set to escape capture, contemplating murdering Claudius while he prays, or offering the audience the handle of a pistol with tears streaming down his face, Umeh is electric. Their Hamlet is a young man who is battling his rage at the oppression he faces within his family and the hopelessness caused by the lack of privacy afforded to him in the harsh surveillance state created in this production.

This lack of privacy is mirrored (hehe) in Patrick Lavender’s genius set design. The set is a double-decker, with a second level that has a large two-way mirror in the centre and a ledge that runs the width of the stage. Throughout the show, the two-way mirror is used to show private action: Claudius and Gertrude sensually embracing, the players putting costumes and makeup on, and Hamlet hiding Polonius’s body. When action is not occurring behind the glass, the mirror appears opaque and serves as an extra viewpoint of the characters as they occasionally walk, embrace, or soliloquize in front of it. 

Further modernization comes in the form of replacing (most of) the swords in the show with handguns. Though the ones used onstage are rubber, guns are a much different weapon than swords. Replacing swords with guns raises the stakes of any fight by an inconceivable amount; swords are only lethal if your target is within arms reach and does not dodge your strike, whereas a gun can kill someone instantaneously and at a long range. These raised stakes add even more danger and tension to this already volatile world created by the lack of control and privacy afforded to Hamlet. Additionally, a gun is not only intimidating because of its ability to kill, but also because of their role in frequent recent tragedies in the United States. Some American audience members who saw this Hamlet with me expressed that seeing a gun onstage is frightening, not because they believe the prop is real, but because of the misery that school shootings continue to cause in their country. As a student from Canada who is lucky enough not to have personal experience with firearms, I can see the theoretical danger of a gun when I see it on stage, but many many people from the United States and around the world see the real danger that the gun is capable of.

Stratford’s modernized, reimagined Hamlet is saturated with tension, fear, rage, madness, and of course, revenge. However, it is also a fascinating story full of electric energy, beauty, and espionage.  Amaka Umeh’s outbursts as Hamlet are more understandable given his youth, and it is clear that his environment plays a large role in his instability, or “madness”. The anxious world cultivated by the lack of privacy and control which Hamlet and friends live with creates some moments of discomfort, but it also provides insight into how these characters act when they are pushed to their breaking point.