A Very Moving Hamlet

Patricia Keeney*

Hamlet. Based on the work by William Shakespeare. Designed and directed by Robert Lepage. Co-designed and choreographed by Guillaume Côté. Composer: John Gsowski. Dancers: Guillaume Côté, Greta Hodgkinson, Robert Glumbek, Carleen Zouboules, Lukas Malkowsky, Bernard Meney, Natasha Poon Woo, Connor Mitton, Willem Sadler. Produced by Ex Machina/Côté Danse/Dvoretsky Productions.Seen in Toronto, Canada, at the Elgin Theatre in April 2024.

It begins with nervous theatricality. Sombre drumming. Red plush curtains. Flickering chandeliers. Yawning space. All signalling tone and style. The kind of pared down “set” we have come to expect from contemporary directors in their focus on actor and text. Except in this case, it is dancers and skeletal text. A figure in black. Hamlet, the doomed prince—lithe and stretched with portent—looms, with his back to stage action, as a tormented shadow over everything to come.

Guillaume Côté as Hamlet before the action, contemplating all the roles he must play. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

But why do the play as dance? That is the question. Yes, Hamlet’s history with dance goes back as far as an Italian ballet of 1788. This may have to do with the amount of action going on in a drama that is also highly psychological, intellectual and political. As designer and director Robert Lepage puts it, “There’s a castle to defend, spies to stab behind the arras and the fencing-match finale.”


Lepage himself has a past with Hamlet. This Québecois wizard of theatrical form identifies the play’s central struggle between thought and action that keeps calling him back. Perhaps the most surprising iteration was his first one. He describes his one-man techno production of Elsinore by his company, Ex Machina, in 1995 as “a tentative exploration of the intricacies of Hamlet’s thought and times and in some sense of my own.” Fittingly Lepage played all the parts.

Gertrude (Greta Hodgkinson) hovering in an agony of guilt and recrimination and over her murdered husband. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

Guilliame Côté, principal dancer, co-designer and choreographer, danced his own first Hamlet with the National Ballet in 2012. Finding that version “more about psychology than story,” he wanted to develop Hamlet further as a man “keenly attuned both to his . . . inner struggle and political power dynamics.” His is a Hamlet, tortured by the belief that his uncle Claudius has actually murdered his royal father and usurped the throne of Denmark.

Côté’s fraught figure veers from shock and mourning to the o’er-hasty nuptials of his mother Gertrude with the traitorous regicide. A lively staccato violin skips and twirls everyone to the marriage feast in expected celebratory fashion. It throbs louder and louder as a surtitle flashes: “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt.” The merry-makers dissipate and Hamlet whirls to centre stage, his arms, the whipping windmills of his restless mind.

There is heavy breathing. To sliding violins, the telltale ghost quivers up from a vast cloth that covered the festive table to become an accusatory shrouded corpse. Such visual moments are Lepage’s stock in trade. Under the surtitle “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark,” Hamlet’s terrible vision rises higher to the sound of tinkling bells while the backdrop fills with the ominous shadows of Gertrude and Claudius, the treacherous two that torment him.

Gradually music and imagery entwine. One ceases to consider sound separately. It is not incidental but essential, fully integrated as part of an intricate emotional and physical pattern.

We move with the dance in creative service to story. A fusion of classical and contemporary, it is beautiful and expressive though not surprising. Following an emotional arc that arises from action conveyed through gesture and visual device, it enhances high points of tragedy, moments of comedy and ultimately the precipitous drop into psychological disaster and death.

The ‘Alas Poor Yorick’ scene in which Hamlet (Gillaume Côté) is tormented by the now dead Ophelia (Carleen Zouboules), seeing her face in the death’s head. Photo: Matt Barnes

No doubt, there are adjustments to be made for those of us wedded to the Shakespearean word. One misses, for instance, the amplitude of text as characters parade forth with surtitles: Ophelia, Laertes, Polonius. While this feels too programmatic, it is the dance that defines their space and the roles they will fill. Along with clever imagery.

Ophelia is floating fear. Delicate distraught energy. A barometer for tragedy, registering bad weather. Her brother, the break-dancing Laertes teases and plays with her to skittish drumbeats. Polonius their fussy interfering father intrudes with heavy breath and rude pointing beneath the foreshadowing surtitle: words becoming swords with the slipping of the letter s.

Hamlet is a consummate actor, inventing all the roles he needs. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent by Claudius to ferret out Hamlet’s true intentions. The harrowed Prince plays his old school chums for the athletic clowns and show-offs they are. What is the purpose of all these pretendings? To survive? To wreak revenge? To love? Endemic to the play, such questions are clearly posed by dance and theatrical design.

The Mousetrap scene newly imagined. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

The biggest pretense comes in the Mousetrap scene, the first real coup de théâtre of this production. Rows of benches rise to a stage where two dancers perform. They are turned away from us but on their heads they wear face masks. They appear to be dancing for the audience but are actually moving backward towards the rear of the stage. This is the weird world in which poison is poured into the king’s ear. This is Hamlet’s world. Back to front, upside down, topsy turvy. Utterly unnerving in its message to the distracted prince.

In his private contrition, guilty Claudius falls before a crucifix while a surtitle flashes his dilemma: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” To grinding music Hamlet raises a sword over him.

Greta Hodgkinson as Gertrude, the Mother of Hamlet’s tortured mind before a rack of different costumes representing the women in his life (Gertrude and Ophelia) who so confound him. Photo: Sasha Onyshchenko

In a flash, we flip to turmoil. Hamlet is a spinning sword without music. Just swirling air. Polonius hides behind the arras listening for clues. Gertrude—set up to interrogate Hamlet—strikes her son. Frenzied, he lunges, thinking to kill Claudius. After a duel between rod and sword, each weapon clinching character, he discovers he has stabbed the interfering nuisance, Polonius, whom Gertrude now kicks away at sword point. The play’s violence, adroitly conveyed in dance turns incestuously suggestive. To an emotional glissando, Hamlet slides down the willowy form of his mother and, laying his head in her lap, kisses her. Full of self-recrimination, he drags away the dead Polonius.

Ophelia peeks out, the timid witness of this action. Shadows of Gertrude and her murdering lover fill the stage with bowing and kissing. The scene climaxes in an inspired moment of inner torment. The women in Hamlet’s life—Gertrude, Ophelia—dance in many mirrors, before a rackful of different costumes, confounding him in their multiplicity.

His world is all against him, his mind the enemy he cannot defeat.

As the piece deepens so do its visual dramatizations. Beautiful and terrifying, Ophelia’s death billows before us in silky blue fabric. With stunning effect, she becomes a looming shadow before the wavering scrim, falls into it. Submerged, she is lost in drowning waves.

All the wrong people are dying.

Ophelia (Carleen Zouboules) and company dancing her torment. Photo: Stéphane Bourgeois

In the final blood bath Hamlet and Laertes fight over Ophelia conveying extreme anguish as they fling her lifeless body around like a rag doll to a female voice intoning lament. In a Chinese opera moment, whirling red and white ribbons on the ends of their swords, they battle to the death, ultimately bringing Gertrude down with them.

Only the faithful Horatio (played surprisingly ungendered by Natasha Poon Woo) remains, ushering in a brave new world to fill the deafening silence of the vanquished.

The language of dance is a language that can speak Hamlet in Lepage’s words “through breath, energy and gestures that can reveal hidden meaning, concealed,” he adds, “by the poetry of the text.” I disagree that Shakespeare’s poetry conceals meaning. Quite the contrary when one considers the number and variety of Hamlet versions through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In this production the Lepage/Côté team adds new shape and colour to a play that never stops giving. 

*Patricia Keeney is an award-winning Canadian theatre critic, poet and novelist. An associate editor for Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre project, she is a Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Toronto’s York University.

Copyright © 2024 Patricia Keeney
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