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Rock the Castle

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There isn’t anything to be or not to be about “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” as it kicks off the 55th season at The Charlottetown Festival on Prince Edward Island. It’s all about being, being in front and making it happen. There’s nothing indecisive about Hamlet. He’s got Claudius in his crosshairs nearly from the get-go.

Lawrence Olivier, who directed and starred in an acclaimed movie adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in 1948, said it is “the story of a man who cannot make up his mind.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t have that problem. His world has been rocked. He has got to make up his mind.

Hamlet’s first song “That It Should Come To This” – sung by Island-born Aaron Hastelow, in a grim dazzling performance of a determined rather than irresolute prince – is performed right after the Ghost King has made himself known to Marcellus and Horatio, and Claudius and Gertrude have made themselves known to Hamlet. He soon has a good idea of the double-dealing he doesn’t know everything about, yet. From that moment on it is hands on the wheel.

The singing is brisk and strong throughout, from the leads to the ensemble. Peter McBoyle, the show’s sound designer, has worked on several musicals at the Confederation Centre, including “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The orchestra, led by Craig Fair, leading the way, gets it done down in the pit, always there as the story unfolds.

Aaron Hastelow gets it done up top up front as Hamlet.

“From seeing a ten-minute segment of the piece in a review show when I was 13-years-old, to now, it’s surreal,” said Aaron⁣. “I need to acknowledge the tireless work of Craig Fair, giving us all this chance, and Cliff Jones for writing some of the most beautiful and memorable melodies. After 45 years, it’s time to share this show with audiences once again. Let’s rock!”

The show starts off with a bang, at the end of the story, as the last of all the main characters, save Horatio, fall down dead, and a black-clad dance troupe of post-modern Greek Furies peck at the fallen, pecking out the vengeance of the Ghost King, Hamlet’s father

“To be or not to be” is never spoken. “Let it be” by The Beatles is invoked. There will be blood is what is on everybody’s lips.

Lawrence Olivier once also said, “Lead the audience by the nose to the thought.” It’s an unfortunate phrase. Who wants to be led by the nose to anything? It’s far better to smell it out for yourself.

“Kronborg” propels the audience headlong to its windswept thought on passages of brisk music and stirring song and able-bodied dance and crafty staging, the twisting plot turning high and low. There are barely two lines of dialogue strung together to transition the songs. It is in some senses like an opera, incorporating all the elements of spoken theater, but sung instead of spoken.

It’s unlike an opera, however, since every word can be understood, it never stands still for long to show off a singer, the songs being embedded in the story, and it is exciting as hell from beginning to end. It bursts with energy.

“It’s a story of family, power, revenge, and sacrifice,” said Adam Brazier, artistic director at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, where the show was resurrected on their main stage, the Homburg Theatre, playing in repertory alongside both “Anne of Green Gables” and “Mamma Mia!”

It is by far the darker, and arguably the more galvanizing, show in town. There’s something both rockin’ and rotten in Denmark.  It’s been said about rock ‘n’ roll that the devil has all the best tunes and the devil is not going anywhere. It’s also been said that shake rattle and roll and three chords are where the truth is. Whatever the truth is, the show is masterminded, exact and sparkling, never slack, always on the go.

Only the Ghost King takes his time.

The set by scenic designer Brian Smith is German Expressionist, a kind of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari castle, ramparts, a ramp and movable stairs, and arched entranceways. A forest as bleak as prison bars is lowered several times, the trees jagged and menacing, no escape. The rest of the set is minimalist, from the overhead part medieval part modernist chandelier to Gertrude’s dressing room, more suggestion and more effective because of the suggestion.

Nothing in the background gets in the way of the song and dance and narrative in the foreground.

When Honeybelle – Nicola-Dawn Brook in a red beret and man the barricades – and the players of the play within the play belt out the gospel inspired “He Got It In the Ear,” the fulcrum on which the plot rests tilts and everything becomes the gospel truth.

Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Ophelia pour their hearts out in “I Cannot Turn to Love” at the end of Act One. It ends suddenly. The stage goes dark.

You can’t wait for intermission to be over.

The musical was conceived and written in the early 1970s by Cliff Jones, He wrote it while working on the children’s TV show “Mr. Dressup.” A Toronto composer and lyricist, his original “Hamlet: The Musical” has been reprised several times. It played on Broadway in 1976 as “Rockabye Hamlet,” starring the rock star Meat Loaf.

It came back to PEI in concert form in 2017 in at the Indian River Festival. Cliff Jones was in the audience. Following the production at St. Mary’s Church, another concert was performed at the Confederation Centre. Shortly after that the wheels were set in motion to stage the show again.

“It’s back where it began and where, in my mind, it’s always belonged,” Cliff Jones said about the production at the Charlottetown Festival.

“When people on the Island found out that Craig Fair and I were working on “Kronborg” they all had their own story,” said Mary Francis Moore, directing the show.  “Who brought them to the show in 1974? What seat they were sitting in when they heard Cliff’s score. What it was like to work on the first Canadian show to ever make it to Broadway.”

The musical is more than just a piece of the Charlottetown Festival’s history.

“We recognize the significance the piece plays. We have dusted off the pages to create a re-envisioned production that has been fully re-orchestrated and re-arranged – new life breathed into this Canadian classic.”

The composer sat in on some of the rehearsals. “I saw what they were doing with this incredible company and with Craig Fair’s new arrangement and musical direction,” said Cliff Jones. “I’m thrilled. It’s been framing my life for the last 45 years. It’s renewed me.

“The show has always carried a special combination of being a fun, entertaining experience, but also being faithful to Shakespeare’s story.”

Kronborg is a 1400s stronghold castle in Helsingor, Denmark, that became Elsinore in Shakespeare’s late 1500s tragedy in five acts. “Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” is in two acts. Not a moment is wasted, but all the key moments are there, from the Ghost King to setting the scene of Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage, Claudius getting suspicious and Hamlet’s turmoil, the king’s plotting and the play within the play, Hamlet inadvertently killing Polonius, the banishment and the tragic climax.

There is even some ribald fun along the way, especially when a freshly re-imagined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their appearance. They aren’t what you expect. They are nimble and treacherous, like street cats on the prowl.

Claudius is on the prowl, too, as Act Two starts, aware of the grave threat that Hamlet presents, and he conspires with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to solve the problem. Gertrude – played by Alana Hibbert – big league but tottering by then, sings the first of her two affecting prophetic solo’s, “Somebody Wrote the Wrong Words,” as fate speeds up.

Laertes and the full company sing “Eye for an Eye” and the die is cast.

It all comes down to Claudius and Hamlet.

Costume designer Jeff Chief doubles the king and his step-son, both men in black, both lean and mean, although Hamlet is largely in wool-like fabric, softening the effect, keeping him on the side of flesh and blood, while Claudius is largely in leather, making him more reptilian. Claudius is Axl Rose meets Johnny Rotten meets villainy most foul.

The costumes are severe, Edwardian mixed with some Mad Max, while the female leads are often more flowing, leaving trails streaking behind them as they cross the stage. Anachronistic pants are used to good effect, especially when the doomed Ophelia jumps into the lap of the standing Hamlet, straddling him, hanging on for dear life.

Cameron MacDuffie, a veteran of the Centre who describes himself as a man who “lives out past where the sidewalk ends,” plays Claudius as a man who doesn’t give a damn about sidewalks. He is self-aware, as most of Shakespeare’s wrongdoers are, and not beneath self-pity, but his self is more selfish and slyly arrogant than it is anything else. He is the king and the kingdom is his person. Beyond him, nothing matters.

It is an astonishing performance.

When Gertrude sings “No Use Pretending,” which might be one of the best songs of the musical, and is certainly the most moving, near the end of Act Two, she is singing for herself, but for everyone else, too. Polonius and Ophelia are dead. The roof is about to cave in on everyone’s heads.

Fight director Anita Nittoly stages the penultimate sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes Robin Hood-style, lithe and desperate. It is thrilling and horrible, knowing there is poison. When the end comes only Horatio is left standing, and joined by the Ghost King in the ramparts, bears witness to what becomes of treachery and revenge.

“Kronborg – The Hamlet Rock Musical” breathes new life into a play more than four hundred years old, and dirty work as old as time. It resonates because it speaks to our own times.

“A nefarious transition of power has taken place in Denmark and the future is uncertain,” says Adam Brazier. “It is a story that is eerily familiar to the current landscape of the world at large.”

Early in Shakespeare’s play, in Act One, Scene 4, Marcellus says, “Something is rotten in Denmark.” The Hamlet of “Kronborg” doesn’t worry about to be or not to be. Something has got to be done. He rocks the castle to get the rot out. He gets it done.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus