This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on January 23, 1995. Partner content is not updated.
Reeves Plays Hamlet
HAMLET By William Shakespeare, directed by Lewis Baumander
It is a daunting role for any actor, no matter how talented. Master thespian Daniel Day-Lewis once walked offstage during a London performance of Hamlet, never to return. Keanu Reeves is no Daniel Day-Lewis. And on opening night in Winnipeg last week, as Reeves prepared to scale this Everest of theatrical roles, anticipation was running high. Local TV crews combed the crowded lobby at the Manitoba Theatre Centre, hoping to line up instant post-play verdicts from out-of-town critics. Kiosks conducted a brisk business in black Hamlet T-shirts sporting Reeves's image on the front and a Shakespeare quote on the back - "To thine own self be true."
Hamlet is, quite simply, one of the most ballyhooed stage events in Winnipeg history. And during the play's five-week rehearsal period, the star who fell to earth in the Manitoba capital seemed to charm everyone, from crew members to people on the street. They said he is friendly, humble, accessible, hardworking. And, above all, brave to take on Hamlet. They worried about him, as if he were attempting a daredevil stunt. How on earth would he do it? How would he remember all those lines? Well, he did remember his lines. In fact, at times he recited them. Very quickly, like a schoolboy dying to get to the end. Perhaps it was just opening-night nerves, but Reeves raced through some lines at such a clip that the sense was almost unintelligible. He whipped through the soliloquies, the signature tunes of Hamlet, as if they were air-guitar solos. Locked into Shakespeare's iambic pentameter, he surfed from one consonant to the next, faster and faster. He rode the play as if it were wired to blow up below a certain speed.
But it was not a performance that deserves harsh criticism. Although he was out of his depth in the big swatches of text, Reeves proved adept in the comic scenes. And whenever he had a chance to get physical, he was impressive. Even when his delivery was lacking, there was something intriguing about his presence. The ingenuous lilt to his voice, the blank sense of disconnection that he projects and his valiant efforts to overcome it - those qualities make him a more suitable casting choice for Hamlet than he might at first seem.
The Winnipeg production is a handsome one. Debra Hanson's costuming has an old-fashioned opulence. Brian Perchaluk's set consists of brooding, slanted walls with Escher-like stairs and arches. The production opens with an imaginative tableau, a "dumb show" in which a dour Hamlet stands silent over his father's corpse, while above him Gertrude (Louisa Martin) and Claudius (Stephen Russell) make love beneath scarlet sheets. But it is a false promise, for the play then settles into a traditional and unprovocative interpretation.
Reeves has little impact until he acts out Hamlet's madness. Dressed in tattered breeches and bare feet, the actor seems visibly relieved by the scene's jocularity. And as he greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "my excellent good friends," a titter from the audience underscores the inevitable allusion to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Unfortunately, Reeves does not cultivate complicity with the audience. Instead of capitalizing on Hamlet's role as the play's outsider, he portrays the prince in an earnest fashion. Director Lewis Baumander must take some of the blame for the shapeless interpretation - for the throwaway tone of the "To be or not to be" passage, for instance, which falls utterly flat.
Throughout, Reeves is overshadowed by several more eloquent Shakespearean actors, notably Russell and Robert Benson (Polonius). At the end, however, he does take charge in spectacular fashion. The sword fight is breathtaking. Suddenly, Reeves commands the stage with acrobatic finesse, leaping and rolling like a true action hero. Finally, he is there, a Hollywood star on stage, acting the part.
On opening night (the play runs until Feb. 4) the audience accorded him a standing ovation. At the reception after the show, when Reeves finally joined the crowd, he spent half an hour patiently signing autographs for a throng of young women who had him trapped in a corner. One fan proudly displayed what he had scribbled on her program: "To bee or not to bee." Awesome.
Maclean's January 23, 1995