Going Out

THE Q&A: Raoul Bhaneja plays Hamlet (and Polonius, and Horatio … )

By Patrick Langston

In November, Raoul Bhaneja, a graduate of Canterbury High School’s drama program and the National Theatre School, brings his acclaimed HAMLET (solo) to the National Arts Centre. Playing all 17 roles himself, without the aid of sets, props, recorded sound, or costume changes, makes for breathtaking theatre.

Photo by Graham Law
Photo by Graham Law

The 39-year-old, who was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in Bonn, Germany, and Ottawa, is a stage, film, and television actor whose gigs include a stint with Ottawa’s then nascent A Company of Fools when he was 15. He’s also leader of the Maple Blues Award-winning band Raoul and The Big Time. Bhaneja lives in Toronto with his wife and two young sons. The prolific performer met up with OTTAWA MAGAZINE’s Patrick Langston between scenes for the CBC mini-series The Best Laid Plans, a political satire based on Terry Fallis’s award-winning novel of the same name. (For the record, Bhaneja ate a late breakfast of granola and fruit, saying, “For Hamlet, I’ve got to be light on my feet.”)

PATRICK LANGSTON: How does it feel to be doing Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the NAC?
RAOUL BHANEJA: I was there not long ago and saw a picture of [the late] Richard Monette playing Hamlet there, and I thought, Too bad I’m not doing Hamlet here. Then I thought, Wait a minute, I am doing it here! Oh, wow, man!

PL: Why such a stripped-down Hamlet?
RB: It’s the most intimate way to connect with the most famous play ever written. The language and the story are the stars of the show, so audiences see the play in a new way or as if it’s the first time.

PL: Do you ever get bored doing the show?
RB: No, because I don’t ever feel I’ve totally achieved the show. You can’t — it’s bigger than you.

PL: You must have a favourite version of Hamlet.

Photo by Graham Law.
Photo by Graham Law.

RB: I think the Hamlet that people like the most is the first one they meet. Jane Moore taught me OAC English at Canterbury and made me a Hamlet fanatic. That’s still my favourite.

PL: How has Canterbury helped you in your career?
RB: It’s the reason I’m an actor and a musician. I had friends in the music program, and I loved being around the music scene. But it’s not just an arts school, so that keeps you grounded. That was something I didn’t really understand at the time.

PL: Tell me about working with A Company of Fools.
RB: We were crazy people in costumes going out on Sparks Street and putting out our hats for money. I remember once [former prime minister] Joe Clark sat down and watched. That was a pretty Canadian moment.

PL: When you come to Ottawa, is there a place you always visit?
RB: If I have the time, I go to The Rainbow. I saw so many great acts there over the years.

PL: What’s the difference between acting and playing the blues?
RB: You can’t trump music for connecting with audiences in a visceral way. The response is immediate — every three or four minutes. It tunes your radar in a different way.

 HAMLET {solo} continues until November 23 at the National Arts Centre. Ticket info here.