Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a story we will keep telling for as long as humans live. Even if we do not tell the whole story, we will tell parts of it. The quest for revenge, a ghost who knows more about the afterlife than he can let on, a play that captures the conscience of the king, and a best friend who stands steadfast through tragedy and ruin, are all hallmarks of this story and can spin off to create new stories themselves.

Every time Hamlet is adapted or staged is an opportunity to make adjustments or to interpret the story in a different way. Sure, the characters go through their tragic arcs, but how, and why?

Ravi Jain’s adaptation and direction of Prince Hamlet tweaks the classic formula in a few noticeable ways. First, the majority of roles are gender swapped, and casting is colour blind, meaning, for example, that Polonius is a white woman (Barbara Gordon), while his daughter, Ophelia, is played by an Asian man (Jeff Ho), and his son, Laertes, is played by a Black woman (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah). Christine Horne plays the Prince of Denmark, and his best friend, Horatio, is played by Dawn Jani Birley. The King and Queen are played by their own genders, Rick Roberts and Karen Robinson respectfully, where Robinson just happens to be a woman of colour whereas Horne, her son, is a white woman.

I believe this sets an interesting precedent and allows people to be different from the stock image of the character to play that role, and to have the experiences of playing that role, without necessarily changing that role or the word-by-word lines originally written for that character. So, Ophelia is still Ophelia, even if played by a man. She is still a she. I will admit that this was the first play I saw in which characters were gender swapped, but the acting was at such a phenomenal level that I soon forgot why I cared.

I am still curious, however, what would happen if Hamlet and co were written as characters of the opposite gender or non-binary identities. That being said, that is not the point of this production. I believe the production is getting at the essential humanity of each character and showing us, the audience, that it need not matter the gender of who plays the character – as that character, that role, and great acting is essentially gender-less.

Another quite noticeable change is the integration of a Deaf Horatio in Elsinore, and a much larger role for Horatio in the process. Dawn Jani Birley signs and, for the most part, remains on stage, interpreting the dialogue of other characters for the benefit of, firstly, Deaf audience members, and, later, in a masterstroke, which I won’t ruin here, for all in the audience.

I found it interesting to really think about what it means to have a Deaf Horatio. Hamlet, as his best friend would know ASL, of course. Would speeches from the king be captioned? Would Wittenberg be a school for the Deaf? There are two points in the script where a Deaf Horatio would need some careful integration, I thought: first, when Horatio begs the Ghost to speak to him (would the Ghost know ASL?, can ghosts sign?), and the whole idea of a “dumb” show (historically, a pantomime of a play before the actual play, without any speaking, bringing to mind the whole ‘deaf and dumb’ thing). As far as I know, the play does not address either issue – nor does it need to, really. Birley’s encouragement for the ghost to speak to “him” are expressive enough of the fear and excitement the presence of a ghost would certainly bring about.

Dawn Jani Birley as a Deaf Horatio

This is not to say that Deafness is not mentioned as a topic. It is, especially after the intermission, with a comedic take on the role of interpreters (surprisingly done without changing any of the Bard’s lines). Horatio is the one telling us this whole story, remember, and, at some point, we have to agree to use his mode of communication to get the most of the experience, which is what the final scene requires for maximum appreciation.

All actors shine in this production, and all have their moments. Barbara Gordon as Polonius is businesslike, and trying to always woo the king to hear a bit more gossip, while attempting to understand and make sense of Hamlet’s tactics. Please note the way that she always eases up to the king, and tries to disregard the queen.

The king, played by Rick Roberts, is randy in the first half, and later, when the going gets serious, quickly takes Laertes under his wing, molding Laertes (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) into an angry, vengeful anti-Hamlet. I would have liked more time with Laertes as his happy self so that this change would have been more striking. The manner in which a white man, in a position of authority, was encouraging a Black woman/man to commit violent acts is certainly a jarring interpretation that makes you think.

The queen, played by Karen Robinson, excels in her bedroom scene, showcasing her vulnerability and fear as Hamlet is rough towards her. While also randy at first, her love for Hamlet and her need to understand what motivates him truly comes to the fore.

Jeff Ho, as Ophelia, plays a spirited, sensuous woman who had so much life and love to offer but is ultimately broken by the love of her life. His final scenes, involving dirt and flowers and cries for help are struck a chord with me. As Horatio expressively signed her fate, I was in tears.

Jeff Ho as Ophelia

Special mention needs to go to Miriam Fernandes, who among other roles, plays the Gravedigger. In this interpretation, the Gravedigger is at first, a comic-relief figure that, at some point, may take the fetishism of death and dirt too far. But really, if we can’t laugh at death, what else can we do?

Christine Horne as Hamlet certainly gives it her all and seems to play Hamlet as if he was at first, pretending to be mad, but then who does become quite mad and grief-stricken for all that he has to endure. The glimpse of madness in her eyes is certainly too close for comfort and kudos to her for going to a dark place for the rest of us.

Christine Horne as Hamlet

Finally, last but not least is Dawn Jani Birley, who deserves all the accolades she will certainly get. Her ASL is not only expressive, but does the work of making Shakespeare’s obtuse and archaic language come to life for both Deaf and non-Deaf audiences. There are times, especially after the intermission, where she carries the brunt of the story – even for other characters – and she takes to it admirably and helps convey the pathos and sadness that Hamlet is known for. Her representations of poisoning, drowning, and stabbing – are, dare I say – beautiful.

If you are willing to come to this show with an open mind, you will be well-rewarded. I am excited for further remixes and thoughtful adaptations of older material.

Catch Prince Hamlet on stage in Toronto until Feb 24th with matinee and evening performances, before it goes on a cross-Canadian tour. Visit Canadian Stage for more information, prices, and a preview trailer.

About the Author

Michael McNeely law student graduate, entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.