The National Theatre School’s Hamlet

Hamlet… divided… as you’ve never seen it

By Byron Toben

Award winning director Alisa Palmer describes the current immersing production of Hamlet by the graduating class of the National Theatre School in the above terms. The drama, the longest in the 37 play Shakespearean canon and arguably his best, has been done many times since its creation around 1599-1602, both on stage and in film. So why is this version “as you’ve never seen it”?

Probably because the role of Prince Hamlet fils is split between two actors, a man and (Tim Dowler-Coltman) and a woman (Alice Snaden), both of whom acquit themselves exceedingly well (as does most of the 11 person cast).

… the role of Prince Hamlet fils is split between two actors, a man and (Tim Dowler-Coltman) and a woman (Alice Snaden), both of whom acquit themselves exceedingly well.

The novelty of a woman Hamlet is not entirely rare, going back to the really late great Sarah Bernhard. Nor are the two doppelgangers, as they do not purport to be look-a-likes, nor is one evil. Perhaps the fine result of what would have been a gimmicky experiment in lesser hands is due to the intangible nuances of the mixed nature of the sensitive hero.

The proscenium stage in the cavernous Monument National is enhanced by a thrust projection that Al Jolson would have loved in his heyday and adds intimacy to the ghostly scenes and the burial scenes. It didn’t hurt to have Doug Paraschuck, one time stage designer at Stratford, Ontario, on board.

Hamlet has a slew of famous quotes. Their familiarity creates a problem for the reciters. On the one hand, you don’t want to highlight them so much as to announce “I am now reciting a famous quote… note my elocution” nor on the other hand, so understate them that they disappear in a Brando-like mumble. Glad to report that all handled these lines well.

scene from hamlet

Tim Dowler-Coltman as Hamlet.
Photo by Maxime Côté.

Court advisor Polonius (Mark Correia) might have prevented the 2008 economic recession had we moderns heeded his advice to son Laertes (Nicholas Nahwegahbow) to “Neither a lender nor borrower be”. He also gets some memorable quips as “To thine own self be true” and, despite his own rambling loquaciousness, “Brevity is the soul of wit”.

“Leave her to Heaven”, cautioned the ghost of King Hamlet père (Eric Berg) to his revengeful son, vis à vis Queen Gertrude (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) who in turn, comments on the travelling actor Queen “She doth protest too much, methinks”.

The protagonist gets some of the best, as befits a protagonist. Among his many “Words, words, words” are soliloquies like, of course, “To be or not to be” and lines like “Get thee to a nunnery”, “Alas Poor Yorick”, “The play’s the thing” and the wondrous good advice to players even today to “Suit the action to the word” and not to over nor understate.

Ophelia (Shayna Viginillo) displays the requisite madness in this patriarchic society as well as a nice singing voice before drowning herself.

The bad brother King Claudius (Benjamin Sutherland) suffers a deserved death upon being attacked by both Hamlets at the end, as ravenous hounds on a fox. This is after some athletic swordplay worthy of an Errol Flynn movie. Only loyal solid Horatio (Eliza Bronte) survives at the end, to tell this tale of the seemingly mad prince (though there be method in it).

This NTS production clocks in at three hours including intermission. A lot of cuts were made skilfully to reduce its original four hours. Click for a humorous video with Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) as the Bard, trying to reduce a five-hour version and paring down To Be.

Hamlet continues at the Monument National until February 27.
Tickets at the door. Pay what you think on the way out. More information at

Images: Maxime Côté

Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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