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A week of Shakespeare part 1: Hamlet by the sea

Signal Hill National Historic Site. Hamlet was performed near the sentry house, top left

Last week I went to catch the final performance of Hamlet – one of the 2011 Shakespeare By The Sea productions. I realize writing about this festival when it’s already happened and you can’t now go and see the shows (if you unfortunately missed them) is a bit of a tease, but I’m hoping this post will encourage anyone out there who’s already thinking about a 2012 trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, to plan on attending a performance or two next year.

The Shakespeare By The Sea Festival is the longest running annual summer theatre event in the St. John's area. One of the more famous moments in its history, something people still recount with fond awe, was a performance of Macbeth out on the cliffs of Logy Bay, which was royally upstaged by several breaching humpback whales.

The audience gathers

So. Location! It’s a huge part of the draw. Living up to the festival’s name, Hamlet was performed at Signal Hill National Historic Site, upon a lush expanse of grass, flanked behind by a gentle rocky hill. This scenic stage not only afforded the audience glimpses of the ocean and city skyline, but provided the actors with a wild and varied backdrop to clambour about as Mother Nature provided the corridors and ramparts of Elsinore Castle and the Danish court.

A ghostly gathering torments Hamlet (Dave Sullivan) and Horatio (Rob Kean)

Signal Hill is an apt setting for an historic tale. Centuries ago, British and French soldiers battled fiercely to control this strategic location – which offers wide open views of the harbour and Narrows. It’s also where, in 1901, Guglielmo Marconi made communications history by receiving the first ever transatlantic wireless signal.

But back to Hamlet. Despite the fact almost everyone dies at the end (or maybe because?!) it’s one of my all-time favourite Shakespeare plays. As soon as the play opened, I immediately felt like I was catching up with an old friend. The actors’ delivered the verse in a natural, conversational way that made it easy and interesting to follow. Dave Sullivan deftly played the (is-he-mad-or-isn’t-he?) title role of a young prince torn apart by his father’s untimely murder and his mother’s too timely marriage. Usually better known for his comedy than his drama, Dave impressively handled the intimidation and exhilaration of portraying one of the most iconic characters in the world.

Re-enacting the murder of the king, as Hamlet (Dave Sullivan), Claudius (Ross Moore), Gertrude (Janet Edmonds) and Polonious (Glenn Gaulton) look on

Director Steve O’Connell, a long-time Shakespeare by the Sea alumni, directed the production, with his customary no-nonsense style. The costumes were modern – although they had a vintage feel – and set and props were minimal, but these factors helped accentuate the beauty of the surroundings and the nuances of the acting. Steve also paired the action nimbly down to less than two hours, which actually worked really well (let’s face it, we all have shockingly short attention spans these days).

One of my favourite scenes was when Hamlet sees the ghost of his father on the ramparts of the castle. The entire cast congregated like gathered furies, forming the supernatural spectre as one undulating, moaning and wailing group.

Shakespeare by the Sea performances are weather-dependant, so I was fortunate to select a sunny day. By the time the show started, however, clouds had rolled in, but there was no rain, and the dusky light added to the atmosphere.

Alas poor Yorick. I knew him Horatio

Ideally, it’s sensible to bring blankets and/or chairs with you. The box office also provides foldable ground seats that help support your back.

As well as Hamlet, the 2011 line-up included Twelfth Night performed at the Topsail Beach Amphitheatre, Above & Below (non Shakespeare) performed at Harbourside Park in downtown St. John’s, and The Curious Case in the Colony: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure (also not Shakespeare obviously!) performed at the historic – and rumoured to be very haunted – Newman Wine Vaults.

Visit Shakespeare By The Sea’s website for more info and updates on future events and shows.

Stay tuned for a Week of Shakespeare Part 2, which will be all about the New World Theatre Project, set in Cupids, the oldest settlement in North America…