Over the sounds of ice cream trucks, barking dogs, playing children and car engines, Driftwood Theatre’s Hamlet can be heard loud and clear in parks across Ontario this summer. Led by Driftwood newcomer Paolo Santalucia in the titular role, the cast expertly weaves through one of Shakespeare’s most challenging and thrilling plays in a production that features a minimalist, modern design. Surrounded by an audience sitting on lawn chairs, lounging on towels, or just lying on the grass, the mixture of Driftwood new blood and seasoned veterans brings the tragedy of Hamlet to life.
“I tend to start with the people I know,” says D. Jeremy Smith, the founder and artistic director of Driftwood Theatre, when asked about the varying level of Driftwood experience among the cast. This is certainly true, as seen with founding member Steven Burley, who plays Guildenstern and other roles. Other returning members include Richard Alan Campbell as Polonius and six season Driftwood veteran Christopher Darroch as Rosencrantz and Laertes. The rest of the cast, including lead Paolo Santalucia as Hamlet, are making their debut with the company this summer.
“Part of the reason was to find greater diversity and greater equity in our cast,” Smith explains. Sarah Finn makes her debut for Driftwood as Horatio, normally a male character in the play. It creates an interesting and compelling dynamic in the production, with Hamlet’s most loyal friend and confidant a woman instead of a man. Natasha Mumba excels as Ophelia and is a part of Driftwood’s Creative Roots Apprenticeship Program. This desire for a diverse, wide-ranging cast creates an altogether unique version of Hamlet, something that can be difficult to pull off with one of the Bard’s most beloved works.
Hamlet is, at its heart, a revenge thriller. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in Hamlet’s situation, and root for him to exact justice on his uncle Claudius (Jon de Leon). Santalucia’s Hamlet dominates the stage in the character’s many soliloquies, as well as when other characters are present. There is conviction to his words, and although everyone knows how things turn out for poor Hamlet, you can’t help but hope this is the time where he makes things right.
However, the play is about more than just revenge, according to Smith. Fear and the politics of fear are integral themes, ones that are extremely significant today, he says.
“[The world’s] government leaders are using fear as a tool to essentially make sure that there’s a compliant public,” Smith states. This view is reflected in the modern, almost post-apocalyptic setting of the production. This is a story is about the struggle for power, and it’s one that can be told in any time. “I hope it starts a dialogue,” Smith says of this interpretation of the play. “I hope people go away talking about it.”
Smith founded Driftwood Theatre over 20 years ago. Since then, Driftwood has traveled to parks all across Ontario each summer. What began as a summer project has turned into something much more, and what he takes away from putting on the traveling tour each year is simple. “I hope that audiences have a reaction, that they have a true and honest visceral reaction to the work.” It is something that is obviously shared amongst the cast as well. After the play ended, well after the sun had gone down, the cast gathered together for a Q&A with the audience. This is mere moments after the play’s conclusion, and it is clear how important the audience’s opinions and interpretations of the performance are to the actors.
Driftwood Theatre’s Hamlet manages to be two things at once. It is a quaint, deeply personal experience, aided by the small, simple set and proximity to the actors onstage. It is also a powerful, eye-opening event, one that is created by fantastic performances from a committed cast and crew. Above all else, it will certainly generate a reaction from its audience.
Hamlet runs in parks across Ontario until Aug. 15. Attendance is free but there is a recommended donation of $20, or you can pay what you can. Visit www.driftwoodtheatre.com for more details.