PHOTO OF RAOUL BHANEJA COURTESY OF ANDREW KENNETH MARTIN
June 19 – 22, 2012
Martha Cohen Theatre
As a critic, I have this silly fantasy that after seeing a truly remarkable play I will simply submit a one word review of “wow”, offering no further explanation or exposition and let it stand at that. While of course I would never be so audacious, I was actually tempted to do this for Raoul Bhaneja’s one man show, Hamlet (Solo), if only so I could privately luxuriate in the brilliance of his performance and not have to pick it apart for public inspection. But the reality is that as much as I want to revel in this wonderful production, I equally want to sing its praises so that others can experience what I feel is a truly transformative night in the theatre.
Armed with nothing but a bare stage, simple unchanging lighting and head to toe black clothing, Bhaneja takes on all seventeen characters in Hamlet, the classic Shakespeare play of angst, madness and revenge. The play, which was developed over six years, including a residency at the famous Globe Theatre in London, relies solely on the talents of Bhaneja as a performer, Robert Ross Parker as a masterful director and the excellence of Shakespeare as a playwright to make things work. While there can be no doubt that the playwright’s words are those of legend, it wasn’t until I heard Bhaneja speak them in his most unique manner that I truly appreciated just how good they were.
Without any frills to distract the audience, the listening becomes very acute. I found myself paying hard attention to every line and in doing so, found music and insight and humour in the story of Hamlet in ways I never had before. This despite having previously seen many wonderful productions of the play.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for Bhaneja’s earth-shattering performance. Showing his award-winning acting chops, Bhaneja uses his voice, body language and facial expressions to transform seamlessly from one character to another injecting distinct personality and movement for each. Utilizing the entire stage, the aisles and even the free seats in the audience, Parker’s expert direction encourages Bhaneja to give us an intensely physical performance that keeps the characters fresh and utterly compelling to watch. While all the distinct roles were wonderful, I was particularly taken with Bhaneja’s humorous take on Polonius who, in his hands, became a kind of cranky Bollywood-type character that not only made me laugh out loud, but actually made me wish the character had a bigger role so I could see more of him.
But as the title suggests, Hamlet is as the headliner and therefore it is this performance that had better shine, and Bhaneja’s reading of the angst-ridden Prince does that and more. Rejecting the star-making “here I am” interpretations of the role and the overwrought soul-vomiting on the stage delivery, Bhaneja plays Hamlet as more of a human than I’ve ever seen attempted. Riled with emotion most certainly, but realistically contemplative in a quiet personal matter, this Hamlet allows the audience to truly relate to his emotions. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the famous and oft quoted “To be or not to be’ scene. Bhaneja uses this moment not to grandstand or emote largely, but instead delivers the lines as a man talking to himself quietly working out a problem. It’s a lesson in the less in more school of thought that pays off big for Bhaneja as the approach allows us to really hear Hamlet and understand the challenge he is trying to wrap his head around.
Now I can already hear what you’re saying – so sure the writing is great and it’s wonderful that Bhaneja is a superb actor, but isn’t one man delivering the entire play of Hamlet on a bare stage kinda dull and difficult to follow? My answer to that is a resounding no. It did take me a good ten minutes to really get into the play and wrap my head around the approach. But once I was hooked, I was in hard. As it seems were the people around me, who were so rapt by the action that the phrase “you could hear a pin drop” would not be an exaggeration.
So in keeping with famous questions, the big one from a critical point of view, is do you need to know your Hamlet to be able to enjoy and follow along? My best answer is this; while I am certainly familiar with the story, it had been a long while since I had seen or read the play and I decided not to brush up on the story beforehand to better gauge its accessibility. So it was more of a cool viewing for me rather than a cold experience. Yes, there were several moments in the play where the characters came so fast and the lines so freely that I found myself lost around who was saying what. But what I missed in minute detail never took away from my overall understanding of the plot and the themes.
Would it be helpful to read a quick synopsis before taking in this remarkable show? Sure. Would I recommend that someone with no knowledge of Hamlet see this show? Probably not. But for anyone that has even a little familiarity with the story or wants to take a couple of minutes to brush up on the plot, Hamlet (Solo) will, I believe, have you joining me in a resounding “wow”!
For the guys and the girls – Forget the Hamlets you’ve seen on-screen or in the theatre. This is a totally new, energetic, funny and gripping take on the classic story. You will be amazed. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Without the elaborate cast, costumes and sets that often accompany traditional Shakespeare productions; I fear you will be lost and alienated by this show. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Acting and direction that will bring your Hamlet experience to a whole new plane. SEE IT