KEVIN O’DAY’S PRODUCTION IS SO GOOD, IT DESERVES A SECOND MENTION
By Megan Leahy
Last Friday evening we left the Four Seasons Centre feeling, in a word, elated. Emotionally exhausted yes, having watched over two hours of dancers withering into anguish, madness, and rage. Nonetheless electrified, and eager to compare notes on The National Ballet of Canada’s premiere of Hamlet.
With the help of composer John King, Kevin O’Day’s production deeply engages the audience in the emotional rollercoaster that is Shakespeare’s tragedy, revealing the ballet as a superb art form for communicating the classic.
The performance begins with Hamlet, danced by Guillaume Côté, alone on the dark stage under spotlight. For several moments the audience watches the tormented lead struggle with his thoughts and his pain. Here, O’Day suggests his ballet will concentrate on title role’s transformation and the challenges he represents.
Early in Act One, all the characters are introduced at Claudius and Gertrude’s wedding. From here on, tensions are fixed; the characters interact, aggravating each other and revealing conflict. The inflaming dance together with the industrial-style set reminds one of West Side Story, especially with the fire-escape stairs and the scene’s orange-red backdrop.
During the wedding scene, Polonius and Laertes try to prevent Ophelia from reaching Hamlet. The interaction takes form in an entrancing dance as the trio gets tangled in a slow-motion loop of movement. The captivating segment, however, does expose a weakness in the scene; namely, so many separate dances are taking place on stage, the audience is unsure where to focus their attention, with last consideration going to O’Day’s prized Hamlet. Throughout the ballet, Côté fails to completely captivate the audience. Compared to the other dancers, he lacks the emotional pulse that fully elicits the audience’s empathy, and his performance tends to be a little flat.
What stands out most in Act One is John King’s original score, with its jarring and interrupted sounds of breathing and knocking and footsteps, like sawing waves that float over the audience. King composed the piece using a combination of live orchestra and computer-generated sounds. He gave characters corresponding instruments. Hamlet, for example, is played by a sliding bass trombone, reflecting his perpetual irresolution. Ophelia is represent by wind instruments and more are added as her character evolves to show her complexities.
Act Two outlines the first, and both King and O’Day start it off with a bang by way of jazzy, upbeat numbers. The initial scene, in which Claudius walks in on the players acting out his own murder, offers some of the best choreography and one of the ballet’s most graceful duets. It also sets the stage for the degeneration of events, hinting to Hamlet’s killing spree.
The dancing in Act Two reaches its pinnacle when Ophelia, performed by Heather Ogden, enters to find her father, Polonius, dead. Ogden gives an unnerving expression of grief turning to madness, and has what appears like an out-of-body experience. Clearly in precise control of her body’s movement, she dances the thrashing and spinning choreography so perfectly it seems impossible it could have been rehearsed. Even when she is lying on her back to convey Ophelia’s drowning, her limbs are hypnotizing as they flail, stretched out above her.
When Laertes, returns to find his sister and father dead, McGee Maddox gives a likewise outstanding performance. Maddox’s charisma draws out the audience’s empathy, as their emotional engagement continues to build.
One of the few weaknesses in the play is the swordfight scene. Though choreographed and performed without fault, O’Day’s production would have ended stronger had he left out props and concentrated on composing a dance rather than a fight sequence.
Even so, the production went off without a hitch. Other highlights include Claudius as danced by Jiří Jelinek’s, who is blessed with a commanding stage presence, and the unique choreography and music awarded to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, who provided the comic relief.
The ballet is increasingly ominous, even during the love scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia, and depressing without relief. Without a doubt it will leave you drained of compassion. But, without a doubt, it will leave you wanting more.
There are still five performance of Hamlet, which runs until June 10th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.