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BWW Review: HAMLET at the Stratford Festival is Fresh and Brilliant and Amaka Umeh is a Star

Review: HAMLET at the Stratford Festival is Fresh and Brilliant and Amaka Umeh is a Star

This Fresh and Brilliant Production runs until October 28th


Last night, the Stratford Festival held its first formal Opening Night - with all the pomp and circumstance that we are used to - since the spring of 2019. Fittingly, the show on stage was one of the productions that was supposed to happen in that 2020 season that never was. HAMLET, directed by Peter Pasyk and starring Amaka Umeh as the Danish prince, opened to thunderous applause at the Festival Theatre. The audience's enthusiasm was certainly due in part to the excitement of a much anticipated opening night - but by the end of the show, the immediate standing ovation was for the fresh and brilliant production all had just witnessed.

Amaka Umeh is the first Black Woman to portray Hamlet at the Stratford Festival. (The character of Hamlet remains male). She is utterly enthralling. Walking out of this performance, this writer could imagine a world where Umeh did not play this role. She inhabits him so completely, and has the audience attentively hanging on to every word. With mannerisms that are almost cat-like, she embodies Hamlet's complex nature. Thoughtful and indecisive in one moment, and impulsive in the next. Alternating with ease from breaking hearts and eliciting laughs - Her hilarious line delivery when Hamlet says he has "lost all my mirth" allows for a cathartic guffaw from an audience that has been holding its breath through some tenser scenes.

Pasyk's production is set in modern times and Umeh's Hamlet is very much a young adult of these specific times - which works very well. A quick reflection on the characterization of Hamlet reveals some stereotypical 'Gen Z' traits which Pasyk and Umeh heighten to great effect. Umeh's Hamlet leans into the cynicism and dark nihilistic humour of the play - making it one of the funnier productions of this work that this writer has seen. Her Hamlet is so exasperated by the 'rotting' morality in the state of Denmark that all he can do is disassociate via sarcasm and strange humour as Hamlet descends into madness. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes, this too feels very 'Gen Z.' Hamlet's awareness and commentary on his own mental health also works very well with this portrayal, as younger generations do tend to have a stronger awareness, and deeper understanding of their own mental health - not to mention a dark humour about that too. Similarly giving off a Gen Z vibe are Norman Yeung and Ijeoma Emesowum as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively.

The entire company is excellent. Other standouts include Michael Spencer-Davis as a Polonius - who hilariously speaks his asides into a cell phone in his shirt pocket that the character mostly understands how to operate; and Andrea Rankin who is devastating and captivating as the tragic Ophelia.

Also captivating is the lighting design by Kimberly Purtell and set Design by Patrick Lavender. Paired with Pasyk's direction, these designs allow for some very clever transitions that I found myself still musing about this morning.

This production offers a grand return to the Festival Theatre and Umeh offers a performance that I suspect will be talked about for years to come. Theatre is back and it is at its finest!

HAMLET continues in Repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.

Photo Credit: Jordy Clarke


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