One man’s Hamlet

Raoul Bhaneja keeps Hamlet simple. There's no set. No lighting cues. No costumes. There's not even a skull. "If it's bad, it will be the worst thing you've ever seen," said Bhaneja.

Raoul Bhaneja keeps Hamlet simple.

There’s no set.

No lighting cues.

No costumes.

There’s not even a skull.

“If it’s bad, it will be the worst thing you’ve ever seen,” said Bhaneja.

“It could be really unpleasant.”

But it’s not, he said.

Because Bhaneja is a storyteller.

Dressed in black, standing on an empty stage, the National Theatre School graduate doesn’t just play Hamlet.

He also plays his mom, the ghost, his uncle and most of the other Shakespearian characters with a simple change of posture or tone.

It often comes as a surprise to his audiences.

“I can see them suddenly realize, ‘Oh my God, he’s doing the whole thing on his own,’” said Bhaneja.

Then, he wins them over.

“I want to put them at ease,” he said.

Comparing it to a ballet, where you don’t want to see the lead ballerina’s toes bleeding, Bhaneja tries to transition effortlessly from one character to the next.

“I don’t want them to think the actor’s going to die or collapse,” he said.

The choice to do Shakespeare solo was inspired by two very disparate productions.

While he was still in school, Bhaneja saw a Robert Lepage production.

It was a solo show, but it took 10 back-up technicians to run the special effects, including the hydraulic stage.

Then, he saw Clare Coulter’s Fever, a one-woman piece with no costumes, lighting or set.

“She just sat down in a chair and said, ‘Can I start now?’” he said.

Bhaneja was taken by Coulter’s simplicity.

People always set Shakespeare in different eras, he said.

“They think if they set Hamlet on the moon, people will understand it.

“But I wanted just the opposite.

“I wanted to hear the words and language and focus on the real crackin’ story.”

Bhaneja’s love affair with Hamlet began in high school.

He had a wonderful English teacher, still a friend, who began screening the BBC’s 1980 version of Hamlet to her young students.

The class periods were short, and the movie was moving too slowly for Bhaneja, who pleaded to take the movie home so he could find out what happened.

“If Shakespeare was alive today he’d be working on cliffhangers alongside the likes of Stephen Spielberg,” he said.

But Hamlet is more than just a compelling yarn.

It gets to the root of what it means to be human, said Bhaneja.

“Hamlet is very much about who we are,” he said, quoting “to be or not to be.”

He’s is such a human character, trying to figure out his place in the world, said Bhaneja.

“We all have days, sometimes years when we wake up and question our role in the world,” he said.

And Hamlet is “an examination of self.”

The play has also infiltrated our modern language, said Bhaneja.

“We forget how many of the things we say come from that play.”

In 2002, Bhaneja received the Christopher Plumber fellowship to work at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in England.

Standing on the stage, looking out, Bhaneja had a sudden realization.

Shakespeare wasn’t writing just for royalty.

Or just for the peasants.

He was writing his plays for everyone.

The peasants stood on the ground in front of the stage, said Bhaneja.

The merchant class was seated at eye level and the royalty sat in the upper balconies.

Bhaneja attempts to reach as wide an audience with his one-man production.

It’s “not spoon-fed” to the audience, so there was concern people wouldn’t understand it, he said.

“But I’ve known 15-year-olds who’ve not only understood it, but been moved by it.”

Moving from character to character, Bhaneja’s Hamlet cuts like a movie.

“And young people’s minds work like that,” he said.

“They’re multitaskers.”

Bhaneja’s production has been running for five years, which wasn’t his original intention.

“But I’m still doing it because people are able to connect with it,” he said.

After his two Whitehorse shows, Bhaneja is bringing Hamlet to Haines Junction.

“It’s my opportunity to take it to the people,” he said.

Then, Bhaneja’s switching gears.

A day after bringing the bard to Kluane, he’s fronting his band, Raoul and the Big Time as host of the Maple Leaf Blues Awards in Toronto.

Theatre and music, especially blues music, have a lot in common, he said.

“You’re telling stories and entertaining people.”

That’s what Bhaneja lives for.

“And if my tombstone just says, ‘Raoul, entertainer,’ I’d be happy,” he said.

Hamlet is at the Yukon Arts Centre January 13 and 14.

It’s in Haines Junction on January 15.

The shows start at 8 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at