To Thine Ownself Be Excellent
“I’m completely won over. I found his performance riveting and exciting, with absolute flashes of brilliance.” [Els Kavanagh, former chairwoman of the Manitoba Arts Council]
“There’s a failure to find the right rhythm, phrasing and cadence, to achieve the fusion of sound and meaning so vital in communicating Shakespeare to audiences.” [Jamie Portman, Calgary theatre critic]
“I think whether the show is a failure or a success is so secondary to a lot of us because of the situation.” [Stephen Russell, actor]
Without a doubt, an impressively large number of talented Shakespearean actors have, at one time or another, called Canada home. A list of such thespians would most likely include the likes of Christopher Plummer, Colm Feore and William Hutt. Ironically, however, the most recognized and popular name on the list is almost never associated with the works of William Shakespeare. I am speaking of the star of such Hollywood blockbusters as Speed, Point Break, The Matrix and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – Keanu Reeves.
In 1995, Reeves played Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) in Winnipeg to sold-out crowds every night, and what was intended to be purely an acting exercise for the up-and-coming young action star turned out to be an unprecedented cultural event. Steven Schipper, the Artistic Director of the MTC, asked Lewis Baumander to direct the play since he had previously worked with Reeves in a production of Romeo and Juliet at Leah Posluns Theatre School in Toronto in 1985. Baumander enthusiastically agreed and he gave Reeves a choice. He explained to the actor, “We could do it in London and do a Richard Chamberlain “I have arrived” kind of number. We could do it in New York. […] Or we could go out to Winnipeg, where nobody would know about it and just work out.” Reeves liked the idea of “working out” and agreed to Schipper’s invitation to work at the MTC.
|Keanu Reeves as Hamlet|
It was shortly after this agreement was reached that Jan de Bont’s high-budget, action-packed Speed was released in theatres and became an immediate box office smash, launching the already successful Reeves into the realm of super-stardom. The work-out quickly became a circus. Obsessed Keanu fans from around the world shelled out hundreds of dollars to see him in the flesh, and critics hotly anticipated the opportunity to witness the paragon of action playing the paragon of inaction. Pre-production hype commonly involved references to Reeve’s portrayal of Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, a performance that critic Vit Wagner called “inept” (2). Thus, unsurprisingly, colossal failure was predicted and ravenously anticipated. But instead of dismissing these disparaging comments, Baumander chose to address them directly. He explained: “Keanu has been working with a vocal coach for the last year. […] This is an actor who has taken a whole year to prepare for a role of a lifetime. So I think whatever problems there were in Much Ado will not be present in Hamlet” (qtd. in Wagner 2). Not everyone was as confident as the director, though. Shortly after the production ended, Stephen Russell, who played Claudius, admitted that “Everybody was a little jittery. Doing Hamlet is a big piece to begin with, and then, with all the publicity and media hype that was happening, you wondered what this was going to be like” (qtd. in Brown 7).
|Reeves at Winnipeg Airport|
Winnipeg reveled in its newfound glory. The city even established a Keanu Hotline for citizens to call if and when they spotted the actor around town. Nevertheless, Irwin Stoff, Reeves’ manager, denied the international media’s every request to interview his client, and he forbade the presence of video cameras in the theatre for the duration of the play’s run. While these stringent arrangements were intended to protect Reeves from the potentially vicious rebuke of the press, they only served to whet its appetite. Indeed, the public and the media fed off of each other. Aside from the countless local fans (who were primarily female adolescents), the rare production attracted people from numerous distant countries.
|Reeves signing autographs in Winnipeg|
On opening night, the play was attended by “a group of Japanese women who bought tickets for ten consecutive shows” (Record 1), and an “Australian woman who managed to collar tickets to eight shows and [who spent] the entire month of January in Winnipeg [to] see them” (Globe and Mail 14 Jan. C18). Hundreds of people purchased season’s tickets to the MTC, just so they could attend a single performance of Hamlet. At the time, the cultural capital invested in Reeves far outweighed that of the Bard. Thus, even if the play had been the theatrical equivalent of a lion ripping its trainer to shreds, it still would have been a success.
Such a hypothesis is irrelevant, however, since the beast was successfully kept at bay, much to the disappointment of the gluttonous arts critics, both professional and amateur, who had been hungering for a generous portion of schadenfreude. Who could possibly have predicted that the publicly inarticulate actor who played Ortiz the Dog Boy in Freaked (a cult classic) would receive primarily moderate to glowingly positive reviews for playing what is arguably the most taxing theatrical role there is? Lewis Baumander did. Months before the production, he warned, “Anyone who is coming to see Keanu fail will be disappointed” (qtd. in Wagner 2). Baumander’s confidence as a seasoned director of Shakespeare and a legitimate judge of Reeves’ abilities, must have contributed greatly to the success of the play.
His approach was crystal clear from the very beginning. In an interview I recently conducted with him, Baumander remembered that he “started off with one key thought, which was: Keanu is Hamlet.” This equation was the seed from which the rest of the production ultimately grew. As a friend and a mentor to Reeves, Baumander had faith in his charge’s compatibility with the Danish Prince, a character who the director maintains is not indecisive but simply human in his decision to delay action. In fact, he believes that Hamlet is indeed very active for most of the play and can thus be regarded as a tragic action hero of sorts. From this perspective, Reeves fit the role like a glove, a glove to which Baumander wisely and expertly matched the entire suit.
Lissa Repo-Martell (Ophelia) and Keanu Reeves (Hamlet) in the Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Photo by Bruce Monk
The uniqueness of this production was made evident from the moment the curtain was raised. Globe and Mail theatre critic, H.J. Kirchhoff, wrote: “Baumander opens his Hamlet with the Prince standing silently over his father’s body, while above and behind him, in hot red lighting and little else, Claudius and Gertrude perform a stylized, graceful and pretty mime-dance of lust” (C18). Eros and Thanatos are common literary elements, but they are also fundamental to the hyper-masculine action-film genre. The box-office success of such movies relies on the degree to which sex and death are featured and exploited. Therefore, these elements, in combination with the special lighting effects, gave Keanu’s fans exactly what they wanted. Knowing that Reeves was more adept at swordplay than soliloquy, Baumander took advantage of every opportunity to foreground the action in his interpretation of the tragedy. Just before the intermission, Reeves is standing on a parapet, and he “throws his sword into [a] plate glass window of Madonna and child, and when [the audience returns] from the break, it’s Christ the Avenger.” More than one reviewer commented on how exciting the dual between Hamlet and Laertes was at the conclusion of the play as well. And the director even managed to incorporate “fire-jugglers” into the piece at some point. Baumander also described a stunt to me that Reeves performed every night without hesitation. In Act I, Scene iv, just before Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost for the first time, Reeves stood on a parapet that was positioned high above the stage, and when the ghost appeared, Reeves “hurled himself twelve feet in the air […], totally trusting that four union guys [were] going to be there with a mat.” These aspects of the production, at the very least, made it entertaining, and they are certainly consistent with the notion that “Keanu was Hamlet.”
Andrew Akman (Laertes), Louisa Martin (Gertrude - background) and Keanu Reeves (Hamlet) in the Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Photo by Bruce Monk
Unfortunately, Hamlet is far more loquacious than he is physical, and even though Reeves managed to remember more than 1500 lines and recite them in the correct order (a feat in itself), the critics generally agreed that his delivery was somewhat lacking. Columnist Jamie Portman writes that “there’s a real problem with a number of Hamlet’s speeches. […] To Be or Not To Be is perfunctorily spoken, without conviction or emotional reflection” (B18). Kirchhoff adds: “if anything, [Reeves] over-enunciated, carefully pronouncing every consonant in the text” (C18). Thus, most of the critics were not entirely convinced that “Keanu was Hamlet,” and neither were the other audience members. Every time that Reeves uttered the word “excellent” (“So excellent a king”, “this most excellent canopy, the air”, “my excellent good friends”), members of the audience knowingly chuckled to themselves, momentarily allowing “surfer dude,” Ted “Theodore” Logan, to eclipse the melancholy Prince of Denmark.
|Still from movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure 1989|
Tom Carson, Manitoba’s Deputy Minister of Culture at the time of the production, lamented that “No matter how good a job [Reeves] does, every time that word ‘excellent’ comes up, little tinges of that character come back. It’s hard to let him out of the characters he did before” (qtd. in The Record F7). However, the illustrious theatre critic for the London Sunday Times, Roger Lewis, did not appear to be influenced by the actor’s film roles one bit, comparing Reeves to Laurence Olivier and calling the production one of the best he had ever seen.
While it is entirely probable that Lewis expressed an anomalous opinion because he had never viewed a Keanu Reeves film, his ardent praise for the otherwise moderately-reviewed play reveals a curious trend. International reviews of the production were, generally, more positive than domestic ones. When asked to comment on this, Baumander opined that “the international press is more intelligent. [It] does not have an axe to grind. It doesn’t have a point of view to have to support. It doesn’t have a readership to fawn over. It has a history of reviewing Shakespeare. It knows what it’s talking about.” He also pointed out that “the American press for the most part was pretty favorable [and] even the Canadian press outside of Toronto was pretty good. It was really just Toronto.” While the freedom, objectivity and superior intelligence of the foreign press is certainly debatable, Baumander is correct in his assertion that the Canadian press had a bone to chew. Canada has always had a cultural love/hate relationship with the United States. We support Hollywood by going to the cinema, watching television and reading celebrity gossip magazines, but at the same time, we resent it for seducing our most talented artists. Therefore, when it was announced that an expat, action-film star would be gracing the Canadian stage with his presence, the hype surrounding the casting of Reeves inevitably made the critics bitter. Perceiving themselves as the cultural barometers of this country, some felt it would be treasonous to glorify his portrayal, and they resolutely refused to do so. Since Toronto likes to see itself as the cultural centre of the country, its critics were naturally the harshest. And I am sure Steven Schipper only worsened their acerbity when he concluded the play’s run by announcing: “As the blinding light from a Hollywood star begins to fade, our eyes adjust and refocus on the stars closer to home” (qtd. in The Vancouver Sun D2).
|Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark|
When asked if there was anything he would change about the MTC production of Hamlet if he could, Lewis Baumander replied, “There are no regrets. […] Overall, I think we got the thing right. It did what it was supposed to do. It entertained audiences.” Indeed it did. It entertained audiences from the moment its conception was announced. It entertained audiences who desperately sought even the tiniest glimpse of Speed’s hero, walking out of a rehearsal or into a corner bar. It entertained audiences who sat quietly in a darkened theatre, attempting to absorb every word of one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies. Though Reeves’ did not win any acting award for his portrayal of Hamlet, the production was nonetheless a unique and immensely successful cultural event that may be regarded as a case study of what takes place when Canada, Shakespeare and Hollywood come together.
Souvenir shirt from Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004. <http://www.canadianshakespeares.ca>.