The question of whether tis nobler to raise expectations for opening night at the Stratford Festival or to keep an open mind is a tricky one. Matters aren’t helped further when the play in question is “Hamlet”, one of the most oft-quoted plays in theatrical history, with just about everyone knowing “to be or not to be”, “to thine own self be true”, and “me doth thinks the lady protest too much”. But Jonathan Goad isn’t afraid of tackling the challenge, taking on the title role (dir. Antoni Cimolino) in the opening night production on May 25.
He starts off incredibly strong, striding the stage with intensity as he tries to work through grief from his father’s death and bewilderment at his mother, Gertrude (Seanna McKenna)’s marriage to his father’s brother, Claudius (Geraint Wyn Davies). But as soon as his father’s ghost (Wyn Davies) appears to him and madness creeps in, Goad’s Hamlet is too full in the higher registers without balance from the bottom, presenting a prince who’s glib and making a mockery of mental health. His character comes off more as a sullen teenager having an hour-long fit than a man of walking contradictions. And in comparison to Ophelia (Adrienne Gould), whose loosened grip on reality is horrifying and captivating to watch, Goad lacks the nuance and balance needed to lift this “Hamlet” into the levels it deserves.
Luckily, he’s got a supporting cast ready to act at their limits. Tom Rooney as Polonius, right up until his dying breath, is spot on with his timing, humour and pathos, Mike Shara’s Laertes only grows in strength and conviction, and Tim Campbell as Horatio is the epitome of what a true and deep friendship is. McKenna, for the most part, nails the required regality and maintains it with few bumps, while Wyn Davies is astonishing in his stateliness and slick — but not slimy — nature.
But Goad’s effect on the others threatened to poke through at times, with the rest of the actors almost falling prey to the same hyper-pitched intensity emanating from Hamlet. One of the most powerful scenes is when Claudius speaks in a tortured whisper, with the whole of the Festival Theatre hushed and leaning forward in their seats to watch. Sometimes, the most powerful words are the ones said most quietly, and it’s in these darker moments that a person’s deepest anguish is most visible.
So, is it unfair to show up at the Stratford Festival on opening night and expect an earth-shattering “Hamlet”? It’s a play that’s been performed so many, even “The Simpsons” got their hands on the dialogue, that finding something new in it becomes an increasingly tougher task. Steven Page’s haunting music — in conjunction with Thomas Ryder Payne’s gorgeous and rich sound design, Teresa Pryzbylski’s stark and minimalist black stone set and the richly textured costumes and Michael Walton’s piercing lighting certainly take it in that direction, but when your leading man can’t temper his performance enough to reach the same point, the evening tends to end in disappointment.
This version of “Hamlet” at the Stratford Festival is never bad, but it’s never — while Goad is on the stage, for the most part — great, either. Even the famous skull scene at the end lacks power and oomph, with the primary focus, alas, on the gravedigger (Robert King) instead of Goad, with Juan Chioran as the Player King also stealing scenes that Hamlet is in.