Two very different Hamlets open a conversation about where the Stratford Festival is heading

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Two very different Hamlets open a conversation about where the Stratford Festival is heading

One Hamlet is played by a Black woman, the other by an actor playing an actor playing Hamlet, and neither production is like anything the Stratford Festival has staged before.

In its production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Amaka Umeh plays the title role, the first woman and the first person of colour to do so in the festival’s history.

The second production is a play-within-a-play and very meta. In Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Hamlet-911,” Mike Shara plays Guinness Menzies, an actor cast in a fictional Stratford “Hamlet” who has a personal, Hamlet-like crisis.

The two plays were originally programmed for Stratford’s postponed 2020 season and the fact that they’re both being presented now is by design: they are intended to inform each other.

MacDonald’s play, a hotly anticipated world premiere (directed by Alisa Palmer and based on an idea developed by Palmer and Vita Brevis Arts), opens on Aug. 25. “Hamlet,” directed by Peter Pasyk, opened in June. In my review I called Umeh’s performance “engrossing and revelatory,” and her casting the dawn of a new era for Stratford.

The Star brought Umeh and Shara together to talk about what it’s like to approach this storied role.

Is it true, what another character in “Hamlet-911” says: that playing Hamlet “messes with you”?

“I’m pretty messy in general, so yes,” said Umeh. “There’s pomp around it. There’s history and there’s circumstance. And now I’ve got the torch in my hand.”

“Daniel Day-Lewis apparently saw the ghost of his father while he was rehearsing it,” said Shara.

Shara’s character speaks only a few of Hamlet’s actual lines, “but the truth of it is, I can take any part and have it mess me up,” said Shara. “Maybe the level of introspection Hamlet has takes it to that next level.”

“At the end, it does feel like everyone has seen me naked,” said Umeh. “Sometimes I feel empty. Sometimes I’m like, I’ve said it all. I’ve yelled at everyone in my family and now I have nothing left.”

“While you’re acting, certain parts of your brain turn off, the rational things, the normal life things, in order to open room for all these other things to come through,” said Shara. “I’m 50 and I haven’t learned how to balance that yet.”

Umeh’s Hamlet is referred to as “he” in Pasyk’s production, but Umeh says how the character self-identifies is a secret, known by “a few people to whom the information is pertinent.”

She talked about her own relationship to gender in terms of performance: “I think that a lot of the expected behaviours for people in certain bodies are encouraged,” she said. “I have a really easy time disturbing those expectations personally in my life. I think now we have more language … We have gender fluid, gender queer, non-binary, trans and all the different umbrellas that all those things fit under.

“I think that my personhood influenced, maybe, Peter’s more androgynous perspective on Hamlet,” she continued. “The men in ‘Hamlet’ tend to go with their first choice, which is kill the guy. Maybe something that would be considered feminine is Hamlet being like, ‘But let’s unpack this … my uncle, I love him. I can’t just kill him’ … all these questions and ruminations that seem to be assigned to female people are part of the things that Hamlet feels really strongly about.”

Asked how being Black affects her playing of Hamlet, Umeh said the answer is evolving.

“I just feel like me. I’m not walking around thinking about being the first Black woman you see on the street or something. I’m thinking about, OK, why is this new? People in the audience haven’t witnessed someone who looks like me be in the middle with all of her grief and rage and power and humour and heart and life,” she said.

“Here’s an opportunity for people who may not have practised listening to listen, and people who may not have imagined that they would be listened to and seen and heard to be that. And that really feels good to me.”

This is where the idea of these two Hamlet plays speaking to each other comes in. Guinness in “Hamlet-911” is a former TV actor whose father, Rex, is a legendary figure at Stratford who loves to recount the story of the festival’s origins. Guinness’s Hamlet-like breakdown leads to “a lot of self discovery … a lot of things he has to admit to himself and realize about himself and the festival, and his place in the world and his relationship,” said Shara.

“I think our play is about, in some ways, the middle-aged white guy making room for the next generation of Hamlets and the next generation of Ophelias, and how the Stratford Festival kind of has to do that,” said Shara. “It’s really quite interesting to have Amaka playing Hamlet here in the real thing, to be carrying that monster, and then we’re doing our play, which is about exactly those kind of things needing to happen here for the festival to go forward.”

Rex sounds off in the play about the new face of the festival, “where women now play in a motley troupe of United Nations feel-goodery; where everything is unicorns and rainbows and hyphens and pronouns.”

With this, said Shara, playwright MacDonald is “walking a very tricky line … how do we be proud of the history of the Stratford Festival and also acknowledge the oversights that have been going on here, and the lack of representation and the lack of inclusion that’s happened here too?”

These have been challenging conversations in the rehearsal room, said Shara, in which the majority of cast members are young and new to the festival.

“I think there will be people in the audience who agree with Rex. I think that’s a problem,” said Shara. “I think there will be folks who think this is their chance to have their voice heard. And that bugs me … it’s tough to be onstage to hear that too, because you feel like you are endorsing it.”

Asked for final thoughts, Umeh said she “didn’t want to create a false narrative that everything’s perfect now. You have a Black Hamlet … we still have work to be doing,” she said.

“I hope what’s going to be different now is like, whoever is playing whatever else at this festival hopefully is bringing with them an awareness not just of what it looks like on the outside, but what it means for the full potential of the next generation coming in.”

“I don’t think we can run from the controversies of any play,” said Shara. “The discussion afterwards is what art is for. And even, as Amaka was saying, if it moves the needle this much it’s still moving the needle.”

“Hamlet” plays through Oct. 28. “Hamlet-911” began preview performances July 28, opens on Aug. 25 and runs through Oct. 2. See stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.

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