On His Own, With Lots of Company

Raoul Bhaneja is his own uncle. Which means he’s also his own stepfather.

Not to mention his mother, his sort-of girlfriend, the ghost of his father and even his father’s windy old court advisor.

Bhaneja will bring all these characters and several more to the Yukon Arts Centre stage next month with his one-man version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, called Hamlet (solo).

But don’t expect a rambling monologue that simply stitches together a collection of the brooding Danish prince’s well-worn soliloquies.

“I’m not there to say, ‘Watch me do the greatest speeches of the greatest, most famous part on earth,'” Bhaneja says.

“I come to you as sort of a storyteller to say, ‘Do you remember the first time you read this play? Do you remember the first time you saw this play, and how it affected you, and how you were moved by it?'”

According to Bhaneja, this production tells the whole Hamlet story – in sequence, from start to finish – in Shakespeare’s own words.

“There’s not a word in this play that I have written, I haven’t changed anything to make it clearer,” he explains. “The only clever thing we’ve done is we’ve cut it down, so it’s two hours instead of four hours.”

The “we” he refers to includes Robert Ross Parker, the play’s director and Bhaneja’s collaborator on the project from the beginning. After several years of development work, the play debuted in Toronto in January, 2006.

“Whitehorse will be almost exactly the five-year anniversary of opening night.” Bhaneja says. “That’s really cool for me because five years I’ve been trying to figure out who this Hamlet guy is at the centre of this Hamlet (solo) show.

The seeds for the show were planted during Bhaneja’s student years at Canterbury High School in Ottawa, one of the first Ontario schools to offer a full-time multi-disciplinary arts program.

That’s where he first became intrigued by Hamlet, partly through watching the BBC production starring Derek Jacobi.

But the idea of a one-man treatment of the complex play began to evolve when he was at the National Theatre School in Montreal and Toronto actress Clare Coulter gave the students a “living-room” version of Wallace Shawn’s play, The Fever.

“She came in there and basically pulled up a rotten old loveseat and said, ‘OK, can we start?'” he recalls. “In 45 minutes, with no lights, no sets, no costumes, no sound effects, nothing fancy, she just totally transported us.”

When he and Parker eventually began working on what would become Hamlet (solo), they knew there would be no financial angels waiting in the wings to bankroll the project.

“Nobody was going to say, ‘Oh, so you want to do all the characters on your own, with no set, no costume changes, no props, two lighting cues and no recorded sound? Yeah, I’m fully behind that, here’s $100,000,'” he laughs.

“Nobody’s going to do it, and I don’t blame them. We were 20-something punks who just really wanted to try it.”

What they came up with was certainly not the first experimental treatment of what is arguably Shakespeare’s best-known and best-loved play. There have been musical productions of Hamlet, many modern-dress versions, memorable film and TV versions, rock productions, punk productions, possibly even the odd Hamlet set on the moon.

It’s also not the first one-man version. So how did Bhaneja and Parker – also a graduate of Canterbury High School – approach the task?

“We thought of a lot of it in cinematic terms – that you can cut from Hamlet to Gertrude. You don’t need to see Hamlet walk over to Gertrude, because Hamlet’s talking and then Gertrude’s talking,” he explains.

“As long as you start to figure out the pattern where you can tell which one’s Gertrude and which one’s Hamlet, it becomes clear.”

They were assisted greatly by Shakespeare himself. Because he was writing for three distinct audiences – the lower classes, the merchant class and royalty – Shakespeare used language itself to distinguish one character from another.

“When the key ingredients are the actor, the audience and the words, what becomes the highlight or the main focus, is the language in the story.”

Bhaneja, who was born in Manchester to a South Asian father and an Irish mother, says young audiences, in particular, seem able to pick up on what’s happening, even if they have never been exposed to Shakespeare before.

“It’s easier for them to go on the ride, because they’re used to seeing things cut, they’re used to seeing things fast. They don’t feel the same need that I do sometimes to have it all kind of laid out and spelled out,” he explains.

“I mean, if these are kids who can text and listen to their iPod and do their homework and talk on Skype at the same time, watching one guy playing 18 characters is really not that hard.”

With over 100 performances to date and positive reviews from Edinburgh to Edmonton, the duo’s gamble appears to have paid off. There’s even a performance on next year’s calendar in an obscure city in Bulgaria.

“I have no idea where this show will continue to take me. I’m just along for the ride at this point.”

Despite the play’s success and the challenges it presents him as an actor, Bhaneja describes it as a “humble” show.

“Sometimes I tour with someone else, but often I just go out on my own, like a little Shakespeare missionary. I have my costume in my suitcase and I go to wherever I’m supposed to do it,” he says.

“The technician usually is a very nice person who helps me get ready before I do the show, and I just kind of go out and do my thing, and I hope that people respond to it.” Bhaneja adds.

“It can be a bit lonely, but it is Hamlet, after all. It’s OK to be a bit lonely when you’re doing Hamlet. I guess.”

Lonely, perhaps. But also rewarding.

“It’s still a rather challenging thing for an actor to do, to be alone on stage for two hours and play 18 different people and tell the story of Hamlet,” he says. “It’s exhilarating, but it’s a challenge.”

With 15,000 words of dialogue to deliver through the mouths of so many distinct characters – male, female, even dead – it can also be exhausting.

So exhausting that Bhaneja isn’t sure he’ll have the energy to fit in a blues gig with any local musicians while he’s here.

Oh, did someone forget to mention?

Not only is Bhaneja a busy and accomplished stage, film and television actor, he’s also a professional musician, who heads a band called Raoul and The Big Time.

But that’s another story.

Hamlet (solo) plays January 13 and 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre at 8 pm, and January 15 in Haines Junction. For details, check the Arts Centre website at www.yukonartscentre.com

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