Breaking the rules: Ravi Jain’s Prince Hamlet challenges conventional thinking about Shakespeare’s Dane

Prince Hamlet's Christine Horne. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Have we been kidding ourselves all these centuries that Shakespeare’s Hamlet actually holds the mirror up to nature? Yup, according to Ravi Jain – or at least that’s the case for most productions of the play.

Jain is the adapter/director of Prince Hamlet, a cross-cultural, gender-bending, diversity-rich reimagining of the play that’s narrated by Hamlet’s old pal Horatio, who’s played by the deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley. Combining English and American Sign Language and billed as bilingual, the show opens at the National Arts Centre on Feb. 27.

Birley is not the only instance of Jain’s focus on diversity. Like Horatio, Hamlet is also played by a woman: Dora Award-winning Christine Horne. Hong Kong-born Jeff Ho is Ophelia. Black actors Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Karen Robinson play, respectively, Laertes and Gertrude.

“A lot of people make broad statements like ‘Shakespeare is universal because of its themes, because of its characters, because for 400 years we’ve been considering the same questions about humanity,’” says Jain. “That’s true, but in the practice of putting these plays on, we’ve actually excluded a lot of people; people don’t see themselves reflected … In opening up who gets to tell the story, we are absolutely able to tap deeper into the universality of Shakespeare.”

Jain believes his take on Hamlet will not only speak to a broader audience but also reveal new truths about the story. “For some, it illuminates Hamlet’s toxic masculinity because a woman is playing him … he’s a real dick; to Ophelia, he’s a real jerk.”

Ravi Jain. Photo: David Leclerc

That willingness to pillory Hamlet, a guy who embodies some of humanity’s greatest existential conundrums, is in keeping with Jain’s comfort in challenging theatre conventions generally. You’ll know that if you saw A Brimful of Asha, the seemingly improvised play about culturally based generational clashes which he performed with his mother at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival here in 2013.

Jain, who won a Dora for directing a stripped-down version of Salt-Water Moon in 2016, is also keen on theatre as a vehicle for cross-cultural connections. In 2018, for example, he directed the premiere of Sarena Parmar’s The Orchard at the Shaw Festival. The adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is about a South Asian family trying to hold on to its Okanagan Valley farm.

Whether it’s the integration of differently abled performers or shining a cross-cultural light on plays, Jain is unsurprised that, until recently, theatre has been slow to get with the program.

“A lot of theatre is pretty conservative because it’s funded by very conservative organizations. The leadership we’ve had for a long time has had only a single perspective … (and didn’t) understand there’s a more imaginative, broader spectrum of representation that can actually make art more exciting.”

Despite the subversive streak in both Prince Hamlet and other work done by his company, Why Not Theatre, Jain insists he’s been absolutely faithful to the original with his take on Hamlet. True, he does start his version at the end of the original, but points out the logic of that: Hamlet, approaching the great silence of death, commands Horatio to “tell my story.” Horatio, in Jain’s take, does precisely that, albeit from the perspective of a deaf actor.

In using ASL, Jain isn’t breaking new ground. This season, sign language interpreters have been on the NAC stage for some performances of two shows: Silence and The Hockey Sweater. More recently, an ASL interpreter accompanied Raising Stanley/Life with Tulia at the undercurrents festival in Arts Court.

What is different about Prince Hamlet is that the person using ASL is not an interpreter standing off to one side of the stage, which is usually the case, but an actor whose character is an integral part of the story.

Jain says he gathers that, for a deaf person, having an ASL interpreter at one side of the stage is equivalent to the experience of a hearing person attending an opera and seeing surtitles on a screen above the stage. “The action is happening in one place, and the information is happening in another. So, as an audience member, my eyes are distracted because I’m constantly switching. I don’t get to be fully engrossed in the experience.”

As well, he says ASL interpreters are not actors and are therefore not able to convey fully the emotion of what’s being spoken.

Having Birley play Horatio deepens the audience’s experience in another way, according to Jain. Because Birley can’t hear the verbal cues in the text that normally signal actors about their own upcoming lines and actions, her fellow performers have integrated subtle physical cues into their performances to keep everyone in sync.

“There’s a level of physical listening in the ensemble. It’s really amazing to feel an ensemble be so physically precise and engaged with each other,” says Jain. “The visualization of the language is incredible. I find I understand the language better because I see it.”

Prince Hamlet is in the Azrieli Studio Feb. 27-March 9 (preview, Feb. 27; opening night, Feb. 28). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.