HAMLET (SOLO) by William Shakespeare, directed by Robert Ross Parker, with Raoul Bhaneja. Presented by Hope And Hell at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). Opens January 4 and runs to January 15, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $18, Sunday pwyc-$13. 416-504-7529.
I remember seeing Robert Lepage's solo version of Hamlet, Elsinore, at the World Stage Festival years ago.
Or at least part of it.
About 20 minutes into the performance, the high-tech show literally ground to a halt.
A screw had shorn off and the massive set couldn't move.
We were all sent home, victims of a production that hinged on modern technology.
Raoul Bhaneja knows better than to try anything like that. He's dubbed his own one-man version of Shakespeare's most famous play Hamlet (Solo), and talks about it, smiling, as "the anti-Elsinore."
"That's not because my show is against that kind of technology, but it's the opposite of what Lepage tried to do. I see his work as a tribute to theatrical design and innovation. My piece is a celebration of the actor."
Bhaneja's taken on an estimable task. Over the course of two hours, he plays 17 of the Bard's characters, focusing on the script's families rather than its politics. The title role alone is one of Shakespeare's longest parts.
"But the concept is really so simple," insists the performer, who's known to TV audiences for his role as Peter, the opinionated stockbroker in Train 48 and to blues fans as the leader of his group Raoul and the Big Time.
"In Hamlet (Solo), there's just one person onstage, performing Hamlet for an audience. I think of it as a hybrid between storytelling in the ancient sense not for kids, but where people gathered around a fire and listened to someone repeating legends and the modern theatrical convention of the solo show."
Bhaneja and director Robert Ross Parker are fusing those two modes of dramatic presentation, without a frame tale or added exposition, to grab viewers the way any good piece of theatre should. In the process, they hope audiences will connect with the play in a way that's not possible in a full-cast production.
Like Hamlet himself, they're searching for what's real and authentic, using the most basic elements of theatre: text and actor.
His blues performances, Bhaneja argues, are a means of storytelling; the music and lyrics don't allow for the separation of singer from audience that he feels happens with other forms of pop music.
Of course, Hamlet is one show where no one doubts the quality of the source.
"You have to cut it and shape it and decide what version you're going to tell," says Bhaneja, who's been involved in lots of new-play development, "but at least there's no question that the play works.
"Sometimes you see a play and think that with three more workshops the people involved would've figured it out. Imagine what it would have been like if people fooled around with Hamlet back when it was being written. You know, like, "No, don't have him meet with pirates when he goes off to England. Make it more believable than that!'"
I first saw Bhaneja perform a decade ago when he was just out of the National Theatre School, touring Fringe circuits with Sad Surgeon. Coincidentally, he travelled with Hamlet (Solo) director Parker, a friend of many years, who had his own Fringe piece.
Bhaneja brings a sense of emotional truth to his stage performances, from a sarcastic advertising executive with a heart transplant in The Domino Heart to a multitude of figures, all of them sympathetic, in Helen's Necklace.
He's even had a chance to play in Hamlet, though not the title role. At Halifax's Neptune Theatre in 2000, he was Laertes opposite Tom Barnett's Danish prince. Having performed it over 30 times, he figures he knows the script intimately.
Bhaneja went into that production aware that he wanted to do it as a solo show. Unusual for someone preparing for a part, he watched as many other versions of Hamlet as he could. He assures me, though, he won't be impersonating any other performer.
"Inevitably, people watch Hamlet and play the game of comparisons. "Oh, I liked Albert Schultz's Hamlet, but I really liked Graham Abbey's Laertes, and my favourite Gertrude was Glenn Close in that film version.'
"There are so many cross-references, even for a casual theatregoer, that people start to dissociate from what they're seeing. I remember Joe Ziegler, who's played the title role and directed the play, telling me that any production of Hamlet is both a success and failure, since there's no version that can satisfy everyone in the audience."
A solo version, Bhaneja suggests, requires the audience to get involved in the story again, to work with the performer and make it come to life imaginatively. He recalls student matinees in Halifax, where he could hear people crying at the end of the play.
"It was like Shakespeare's first audiences; no one knew what was going to happen at the end. What a magical thing, if you don't know what's coming. When you strip away all the visual cues, people might even be caught off guard.
"And isn't the best part of a tragedy thinking, 'No, no, please no, don't let that happen,' even as you know it's going to happen?"