I just returned from a brilliant rendition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Yukon Arts Centre. One man, Raoul Bhaneja, did the whole play–or an edited version of the whole play–but he did every part, not just Hamlet’s soliloquies. He had a box of light and an edge of darkness that he ran around making us believe he was seven or eight or ten people. It was, in a word, stunning. You might think that it will become boring–one man doing everything–and yet, every character received the same high quality attention. I can’t imagine the inner-acting work that went on to understand every character, embody every person. “I wanted to give everyone their chance,” Bhaneja said during the Q & A after the show.
It is a two hour show, and Bhaneja says about 15,000 words (from his own estimation). He nuances characters with a gesture–Rosencrantz, his arm in the air; Guildentstern, leaning on one knee; Gertrude with her hand over her chest; Polonius stooped; Horatio a bit rigid and formal; Ophelia shy and uncertain. His voice takes on multiple voices–a Sybil of sorts–but whose accents define the boundaries of the characters well enough for you to imagine, and I kept doing this, as if there were really six or seven people on stage and they were just being revealed to you one at a time as they spoke, as if they just came through the haze to speak.
Because Bhaneja edited the work, the transitions might be a bit altered, transitions from scene to scene. But when I watched him end one scene with Hamlet and then start the next scene with Claudius I was struck by the statement it made about their characters. Having one man portray both Claudius and Hamlet and crossfade into them gives the viewer this chance to see the two men as more similar, more equal, two sides of the same coin. It’s easy to delineate the characters when they are played by separate actors, but when one man does them, it actually makes you think about how similar they all are.
He said he tried to create families–give Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes–certain family looks, traits, gestures, voices. But he also gave us unusual pairings because he transitioned back and forth between Hamlet and Gertrude, Claudius to Horatio, the gravedigger to Hamlet. It made me want to think about how these characters are similar, how their actions may separate them, but that at their base core they are similar. Human. But even more, with the same potential for every character trait. In Bhaneja’s version there are no heroes or villains or questionable acts or bad or good paths–they are merely options that one may take. Because we have nothing else to look at, nothing else to consider, except their words, we see people stripped to their choices.
Perhaps in some ways Bhaneja asks us to examine ourselves and see the Claudius and the Hamlet inside us–that we all have the potential to be all the characters. What separated Claudius and Hamlet? They both desired something. They both deceived. They both killed on their way to what they wanted. They both wanted something so badly they couldn’t give up their downward trajectory. Hamlet then is just Claudius’ conscience coming to get him–literally “the conscience of the king.” Gertrude is just what Hamlet was supposed to be doing—going along with the new King, going along with the new plan, the new love, and being the kind of royal that was expected. Gertrude is Hamlet’s choice if he hadn’t been riled at Claudius; Hamlet is Gertrude’s other choice had she been too grieved. Ophelia is Hamlet’s madness if it had been real. They are two of the same people—Ophelia unaware that she is mad, but mad; Hamlet feigning madness though he’s sane. They are like quantum versions of each other–the path that Hamlet didn’t take. Everyone’s always seen Laertes and Hamlet as mirror versions of each other, and even Hamlet remarks that he feels Laertes’ pains—but Bhaneja shows us that they are the same person. That, legitimately, Laertes wants the same kind of revenge that Hamlet wants. Both lose a father to foul play; both lose Ophelia. What makes us root for Hamlet and not Laertes? Bhaneja shows us that we can’t not root for both–for they are the same person on parallel paths. I’m convinced that Bhaneja did this on purpose–to make us think of the commonalities of the characters–that they are all human, all equally important, all heroes, all villains.
It’s that unity and humanity that comes out so strongly from the actor’s purposeful crossfades. As we move empathically from one to the other, we ache for them all equally. They are a crowd of hurt people and after Bhaneja, I believe any one of them could have had the play named after them. The Tragedy of Gertrude. The Tragedy of Claudius. The Tragedy of Polonius.
In the final analysis, Bhaneja actually returns us to the very very beginning of Hamlet. He does this in two ways. By crossfading Hamlet’s death scene into a visage, and breathing, of his own father—he gives the play a circular shape. Hamlet is Hamlet is Hamlet. But he also returns us to the first seed of the playwright, Shakespeare, who conceived of this play and wrote the play feeling and acting through, in his mind, at least, every part himself. In Raoul Bhaneja we see Shakespeare, one man, the playwright, as he must have been while writing the play, trying to make sense of his play by speaking out every line, acting out every part, being every human in the search for every character’s familiar, and essential, human core.