2016 Edmonton Fringe Review: Breakneck Hamlet

Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Hamlet is in the upper pantheon of Shakespeare's works. Voted his best play by both Time Magazine readers and a Daily Telegraph survey of British artsy types, it's more palatable to modern pussified audiences than Othello or The Merchant of Venice (as I covered in last year's review of "Shylock"). While it doesn't speak to as universal a theme as Romeo and Juliet (or even Othello) it still ranks up there with Shakespeare's most "accessible" plays, a definition not always easy to define but generally considered the sort of play where you can easily identify with the central drama to the main character and the plot is easy to discern through the flowery writing. However our aversion to incest and the sheer unlikelihood of such a thing happening in a western nation in 2016, the notion of our uncle seizing our late father's wife is one that most of us can appreciate as being very un-kosher. His dilemma of how to find out the truth about what happened to his father and make everything right is the essence of the heroic drama. It also featured Shakespeare writing at his best: the dialogue snaps and sizzles in Hamlet more than any other play.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of it. Hamlet is 29,551 words (4042 lines), making it a third again longer than the average play in the Elizabethan era. Some stuff ends up having to be cut out to bring it to a length where a modern audience can fit it all in (the exception being the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version). So how much of Hamlet do you cut in order to bring the runtime down to three hours? Two hours? 135 minutes?

All of them are dubious propositions, so imagine the stress required to bring the play to a tick over 59 minutes. That was the challenge in adapting the play for Breakneck Hamlet, a one man show starring Timothy Mooney. Just to hammer the point home, with the first syllable from his mouth he hits a digital timer next to the throne and you almost literally engage in clock watching. But unlike the kind I do at work ("I'm 65/117ths done my day!") this helps you stay with the story, letting you benchmark the act and scene breaks and wondering "if Claudius is praying 36 minutes in, how can he fit in the Laertes mob?" and so on and so forth. Mooney covers just enough dialogue to propel the plot and provide basic character motivation for the star, leaving behind the backgrounds of the other characters. We never really feel the tension between Laertes and Ophelia over her relationship with Hamlet, we don't know much about Polonius's motivation at all, and (as is typical for a shortened version of Hamlet) Fortinbras is relegated to being just a plot element to resolve the tale. The gravediggers are portrayed for a scant fifteen seconds, Ophelia's suicide not shown at all, and Gertrude doesn't get much in the way of attention either. This is purely Hamlet's story, with brief aways to Claudius's plotting so that we understand the context.

And it works. While we never delve into the "is he mad or isn't he" that wasn't originally a big part of the play (we can blame the Goths and Freud for that one), we do see a prince trying to first determine if the ghostly apparition is telling him the truth and then determining (wrongly) how to properly remove Claudius and take back the throne he is so owed. The most famous of the Hamlet quotations still make their way forth, and only occasionally are Shakespeare's words dropped in favour of snide asides or brief explanations of the world of 1601 England for a modern audience's benefit. While they did provide the play's only laughs, and I understand the narrative need for them, I would have preferred they had been left out.

For the work they distract from is superb. Timothy Mooney vaguely resembled William H. Macy and really sounds like him, and his ability to subtly portray the different characters helps keep the play moving at...well...a breakneck pace, frankly. Naturally being Shakespeare the language is flowery and sublime, and Mooney's delivery expresses the beauty in the language of Shakespeare that so flustered Jim Hacker. For the Shakespeare aficionado to the Shakespeare neophyte (I wouldn't necessary recommend this to the Shakespeare purist) Breakneck Hamlet play is designed to delight and entertain both. And yes, indeed, it's done in under an hour. He has the clock to prove it.

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