Ravi Jain plays with gender, race, and ability in Prince Hamlet. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.
Members of the cast of Prince Hamlet. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

Following his critically acclaimed re-interpretation of Salt Water Moon at Gateway Theatre last year, Ravi Jain returns to the West Coast with another re-imagined classic, this time based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies.

First produced eleven years ago as his debut show for his newly created Why Not Theatre, the genesis for Prince Hamlet came as Jain returned to Toronto following a ten-year absence.

Feeling somewhat disconnected from the local theatre scene at the time, Jain knew he had to do something to get noticed as he set out to establish his new company. His solution was to adapt Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“I really put a focus on the cut of the text, with emphasis on the storytelling to show people what I was about, what I was interested in doing in the theatre, and get people excited about me and my company,” he explains.

While Shakespeare’s original story remains, Jain reworded and rearranged the text to tell the story from Horatio’s perspective. And while he says those familiar with the original work will experience Prince Hamlet differently from those who are not, it is not necessary to go in with an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s play.

“You’ll just know more, and you’ll have more fun with where things are changed and moved around, but it doesn’t stop someone who doesn’t know the play, from enjoying it,” he says.

In addition to reworking the text, Jain also changes things up by casting women in traditional male roles, and the use of American Sign Language (ASL).

“It is moving, funny, and more than anything, theatrically, I think it's really surprising." - Ravi Jain. Prince Hamlet (photo above) by Bronwen Sharp.
Prince Hamlet plays with both gender and ability.  Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

“To have Christine Horne, who plays Hamlet, speak “To be or not to be,” or “Oh, what a piece of work is man,” just resonates differently,” explains Jain. “Or, to have Dawn [Birley], who plays Horatio, sign the speech where Ophelia drowns; just the way she’s able to do it, the visual aspect of it, helps to understand the text in a completely different way.”

The idea for a fully bilingual (English and ASL) adaptation was not something Jain had first considered when he first began the project over a decade ago. It would be Canadian Deaf actor Dawn Birley who pushed him to more fully incorporate signing into Prince Hamlet.

“Because of her ability to take on so much, we were able to really amplify the ASL in the production, to the point she is signing in three different ways throughout the piece,” he says. “She’s signing summaries of what’s happening, first person character point of views, and then there is a poetic ASL where she’s adapted Shakespeare’s language to a kind of poetic sign.”

Jain goes one step further though, by refusing to provide spoken translation for those sections in which the text is signed, and vice-versa.

“Part of that came from a desire to ensure that both the hearing audience and the d/Deaf audience would have the same experience,” he says. “There are times were d/Deaf audience members won’t necessarily understand what the hearing actors are saying, and there are times where a hearing audience won’t necessarily understand what Dawn is saying.”

By deciding not to provide translations, Jain is not worried about alienating members of the audience by ensuring the visual storytelling allows both the hearing and d/Deaf to understand what is happening on stage.

“It wasn’t a worry because we ensured that everybody’s experience would be the same, and that everybody could follow the story in its entirety,” he says.

In Prince Hamlet, Jain also plays with gender.

“I feel that there’s so much history that has excluded so many great actors from interpreting stories,” he says. “It wasn’t like I specifically chose Claudius to be a man, and Gertrude to be a woman. It happened naturally, based on the actors that I wanted to be part of it.”

Rather than playing the roles as gender-based though, Jain insisted his actors play to their strengths as actors.

“What we kept saying around the rehearsal hall is you play yourself,” he says. “What makes a woman a woman? What makes someone play female? What makes someone play a male? We all have all aspects of those qualities in us, so we’re not necessarily playing the gender. We’re playing ourselves.”

Referring to his own work as a “refreshing take on an old story”, Jain is excited to bring it to Vancouver audiences.

“It is moving, funny, and more than anything, theatrically, I think it’s really surprising,” says Jain. “I think people will be equally excited about how we tell the story, as the story itself.”

Prince Hamlet plays as part of the 2019 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival at various venues across Vancouver from January 17 to February 3. Visit pushfestival.ca for tickets and more information.