Hamlet Matthew Baldwin as Ophelia
Matthew Baldwin as Ophelia

HAMLET. Directed by Fred Abrahamse, with Marcel Meyer, Michael Richard, Callum Tilbury, Dean Balie, Jeremy Richard and Matthew Baldwin. At Theatre on the Bay, until 29 April.

THERESA SMITH reviews

The most meta-theatrical of all Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet is filled with the imagery of actors, theatre and acting.

The eponymous character even explains that the purpose of theatre is “to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’.”

This particular production takes this notion and reinforces it over and over, making it the central tenet of a play which is lauded so much because it is so open to interpretation. But, where so many seek a contemporary spin or a post modern interpretation to make it new, this Abrahamse and Meyer production successfully mines the past to concentrate on the text.

A natural take on revenge disguised as madness

While an interpretation of Shakespeare’s work that takes its cue from the old is more often associated with stylised Elizabethan conventions – a style which has morphed into its own beast over the years – this production takes its cue from the first non-European production of Hamlet.

In 1607/8 sailors aboard the Red Dragon, a ship off the coast of Africa, performed the play and what we see is what that particular production could have been like.

So instead of a highly polished, conventional, even archly stiff read, we get a very natural take on the tale of revenge disguised as madness.

Marcel Meyer as Hamlet
Marcel Meyer in the title role

This is a group of six sailors presenting what was for them a very contemporary piece of work, so they speak their lines simply with no ostentatious handwringing to make clear their intent, because the words make it clear.

The deceptively simple set is a raised dais positioned above a moat of water which reflects in the sail-like drapes hanging over the performers. Three wooden chests double up as seats or places to hide props while actors disappear behind drapes to change. Since there are only six of them to play 23 characters, this is a well-choreographed dance of ‘flick the curtain and come back as someone else’.

Charl-Johan  Lingenfelder’s evocative soundscape underscores the dread of particular scenes while neatly reminding you every now and then of the play’s setting with the sound of the creaking ship or a flapping sail.

So too Marcel Meyer’s costume design suggests a crew ‘cannabilising’ whatever they had on deck to create their characters. The queen’s costume and crown are especially redolent of a clever hand at recycling, and the masks used by the actors who come to visit are delightful.

Excellent characterisation, clear delivery

While it may be called Hamlet, and revolve around the Danish prince feigning madness in order to exact revenge against his murderous uncle, Dean Balie steals the show as both stately Polonius and supportive Horatio with excellent characterisation and clear delivery. Michael Richard too dominates his scenes and his King Claudius is more imperial than venal – the man does have lovely diction, he could read a recipe and make it sound gracious.

Callum Tilbury creates an elegant queen caught up in the machinations of others, but every now and then he will tilt his head and you are once again reminded he is a man playing a woman. So too the sound of the ship settling reminds you, you are watching a play within a play within a play.

Anyone familiar with the text would usually concentrate less on what is being said and more on how, but by stripping Hamlet down to its bare essentials we spiral back again to the text. So much of it has crept into ordinary parlance, you cannot help but smile when you hear some bon mot dripping off someone’s tongue the way it was probably originally envisaged – as a messy mirror to life, not just a hyper-stylised 2D picture.

What: Hamlet
Where, when: Theatre on the Bay, Camps Bay, Cape Town
When: 12 – 29 April
Book: Computicket
Group, school bookings: 0214383301, mike@theatreonthebay.co.za
For more from Theresa Smith: theresathewordsmith.wordpress.com
WS