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Playing all Hamlet's roles

From Friday's Globe and Mail

Toronto actor Raoul Bhaneja is either very crafty (and abundantly patient) or completely out of his mind - much like his favourite character, Prince Hamlet of Denmark.

Seven years ago, Bhaneja, then a fresh-faced and fresh-out-of-school actor, realized that waiting for someone to ask him to play Shakespeare's most complex character would mean a lot of years doing beer commercials and bit parts on Relic Hunter. So he decided to produce Hamlet himself, with a twist - he would play the moody prince and the play's 16 other characters too.

Hamlet (solo), a new documentary premiering on Bravo! this week (and the featured attraction at a Sept. 19 benefit for the Shakespeare Globe Centre of Canada), follows Bhaneja's quest to find a director, a producer - and the nerve - to mount his one-man opus.

Watching the film, you occasionally want to slap Bhaneja (in the friendliest possible way) and tell him to do something less daunting with his life, like bear-baiting. But as the film unfolds, he wins you over with his stubbornness, blunt accounts of his own doubts and fears, and shots of his Hamlet-induced back surgery.

Peppered with conversations between Bhaneja and a handful of legendary Hamlet interpreters, such as Christopher Plummer, Colm Feore, Paul Gross and John Neville, Hamlet (solo) is ultimately an examination of popular culture's continuing obsession with Western literature's archetypal skull-clutcher.

Since tackling Hamlet, Bhaneja has played feature parts in the television shows Train 48 and The Dresden Files, and appeared in Atom Egoyan's underrated Ararat. Look for him next in Weirdsville, a feature film that made its debut at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. If your nails can stand the tension, the all-Raoul Hamlet tours Canada this fall. Why Hamlet solo and not, say, Oklahoma! solo?

I saw a production of Robert Lepage's Elsinore when I was at the National Theatre School, and I was inspired to interpret Hamlet in a solo format - but not in the way Lepage did it, which was more abstract, more about the architecture of the play. That was back in 1995, so it's been kicking around in my head for that long. And Hamlet is a play so much about an individual, staggeringly deep in its examination of the self, that it lends itself well to solo interpretation. Why does every young actor guy want to do Hamlet - it's like the theatre student's version of backpacking through Europe.

It's a bit of a rite of passage. But I almost got more interested in telling the story of the play than being completely fixated on playing the role of Hamlet. But I've been hooked since Grade 11. Would there be the same kind of cult around Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus if they, too, were taught in every high-school English class?

I don't think so. There's a kind of profound code in Hamlet, there's something so essential about the questions he asks.

You also produced this documentary - a film about you - and it's no surprise that you become somewhat Hamlet-esque as the film progresses.

To clarify, I'm the producer insofar as somebody had to pay for the cameras. But it's not my film. I am conscious of the fact that I am on camera a lot, but we tried hard to not make a 47-minute press release. One could watch the film and think it's really just a very long audition reel, a 'Raoul On Raoul' indulgence.

That's what people said about the stage production too ... well, the only place people say that is in Toronto. When I've done it in other places, I haven't met with the same level of suspicion I get here - questions like, 'Why do you think you should do this? What gave you the right to think you or this play are important enough to document?' We are a cynical people.

I find the film hard to watch. When you're an actor, a part of you needs to be in the public eye, but a part of you also needs to be private, so that people can believe you are different characters. The last thing I would normally want to do is let people see my home, meet my wife and family, see me when I am not acting. Apart from the obvious social-climbing benefits, why did you seek out all those legendary Hamlets?

Two things: One, I can't say I've gotten any work out of talking to these famous actors. Oh, c'mon.

No, really. The other thing is that there's a lack of acknowledgment of Canadian theatre history. When I called these guys up, they all said yes. The only person I couldn't get was Keanu Reeves. Perhaps for obvious reasons.

There are things those guys said to me, advice they gave me, that's still paying off, years later - stuff about being an actor, about the play, the process. You're so sincere!

Do you think you could be a cynical son of a bitch and do what I did? Trust me, this was too much work. This is seven years of my life, man!

*****

Particulars

Born

June 6, 1974, in Manchester, England. He came to Canada as a baby with his Irish mother and Indian father. Education

Attended a performing-arts high school in Ottawa, then graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal.

Relationship status

Married to actress Birgitte Solem. They live in Toronto.

Musical side

He fronts a band called Raoul and the Big Time, who have put out two CDs, Big Time Blues and Cold Outside.

rmvaughan@globeandmail.com

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