Hamlet is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. The intrigue is brought on by the verisimilitude and theatricality of the play. And with universal themes of revenge, uncertainty and madness – aspects that have always been part of human lives – a sense of empathy is brought through.
The test for a successful staging of Hamlet would definitely not lie in the narrative, and probably not in the presence of these age-old elements. It would be the result of a fresh approach to the most meta-theatrical of all of Shakespeare’s work.
The Abrahamse & Meyer production of this much-loved play takes a noteworthy stance indeed.
Director Fred Abrahamse sticks to some conventions – males play female characters, and the original style and tone is retained – while managing to wrap it in a blanket of originality. The set contributes a lot to this notion. At first, it appears the action is merely taking place on a raised platform. Another glance, and I noticed it’s actually surrounded by water, adding both a dimension of simplicity as well as a metaphor for redemption in the chaotic world of Hamlet.
Without a post-modern approach, the essence and importance of the text and story speaks for itself. This version takes you back in time to one of the earliest recorded performances of Hamlet during Shakespeare’s lifetime. In 1608, off the East coast of South Africa, the crew of the East India Ship, Red Dragon, performed Hamlet aboard. This skilfully creates a meta-theatrical element as now, in 2017, we are watching a play within a play that was played out on ship.
In his log on 31 March 1608, Captain Keeling noted: “I invited Captain Hawkins to a fish dinner, and had Hamlet acted aboard me, which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games or sleep.” Now, we are the passengers on this ship and Captain Abrahamse allows us to step back in time to a specific event, something that is intrinsically unique in modern theatre. You don’t need to modernise a play for it to be fresh – history is full of ideas.
The cast is made up of just 6 actors, but together they portray a total of 23 characters, effortlessly slipping in and out of the various costumes. It’s a remarkable feat considering the limited time they have to change, likening themselves to a quick-change magic act on a Las Vegas stage.
Marcel Meyer acts the title role and takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster, especially in scenes where he embodies his father’s spirit. Meyer does not go for hackneyed interpretations of famous lines such as “to be or not to be”, but rather focuses on the emotional turmoil and depth of his character.
Supporting cast member Dean Balie, who plays the roles of both Polonius and Horatio, also deserves a mention. His characterisation of the two vastly different personas is astounding, and he easily brings out the idiosyncrasies of each with the flick of a finger.
In the third act, Hamlet proclaims: “… as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” This version of Hamlet does so successfully. Shakespeare held up that mirror to society centuries ago, and now audiences have the chance to look into it, too. Only this time, the mirror may have different trappings.
Hamlet is on at Theatre on the Bay until 29 April 2017.