Raised arms against a sea of troubles

Hamlet-2

Mad and bereft: Marcel Meyer plays an electric Hamlet. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

There’s nothing quite like a foray into the life and dilemmas of the Prince of Denmark to make an otherwise ordinary evening completely extraordinary. Under the directorial hand of Fred Abrahamse, Hamlet is an uncompromising, uncompromised production which is contemporary and classic at the same time, as it presents one of theatre’s most respected stories with a moral freshness and a pared down sensibility that will keep you riveted.

The tale of the hapless young prince who is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased father, with a message of vengeance for his murder has been performed for over 400 years, in various manifestations and the creative team of this production have certainly done their homework in reflecting on it. In particular, in 1608, a record exists documenting the performance of this work by the crew of the Red Dragon, a ship, off the East Coast of South Africa.

Abrahamse casts a nod in the direction of this crew with his stage that is surrounded by a flood of tears and a set that is ensconced in a diaphanous arras. The effect is a cleaving of values and a conflation of narrative with set decisions that will take your breath away. And as you hear the creak of the ship resting and swaying on the ocean, you will realise the devastating subtlety with which every part of this production – from the music’s composition to the fight choreography – comes together to enable a sophisticated and potent whole.

Hamlet is performed by a tiny but immensely sophisticated cast of men. Everyone, including Gertrude and Ophelia, is represented with due dignity and muscle – and if you saw Abrahamse’s Richard III a couple of years ago, you will understand the nuance and wisdom in the work. Playing Shakespeare in such a way that you, in the audience can imbibe the beauty of the language as you’re transported by the moral crux of the tale, the work is a sheer masterpiece.

It’s sinister and shaped, moulded and passionate in its articulation, but the proverbial cherry on top of this tough well-made piece is the costume design. Easy enough to transfer performers and characters before our very eyes, the clothing they wear is clean of fluff, but not of wit and wisdom.

The eponymous character, performed by Marcel Meyer, is gut-wrenching in his quandary as he faces his corrupt uncle (Michael Richard) and his complicit mother (Callum Tilbury), in her fabulous crown of spikes. In directing the work, Abrahamse has given an edgy focus to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jeremy Richard and Matthew Baldwin), enabling them to embrace the sinister – evoking the terrifying young girls in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – in their togetherness and split loyalties. He also highlights the bumbling pedantic role of Polonius (Dean Balie), offering an explicit clarity to the work which will make you want to hold onto moments forever.

There are moments in this work which renders the flowers of remembrance cast so beautifully by Ophelia into flames and tea lights. And others in which Yorrick’s skull dangles magically over a shroud, but further to that, there are moments in which the bare simplicity of the words cast against the set, of the predicament of the characters cast against their morals, that reaches through the rich and varied trajectory of this play’s history and makes you realise how privileged you are to be in the audience.

  • Hamlet is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features design by Fred Abrahamse (set and lighting), Marcel Meyer (costumes), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (composer) and Anton Moon (fight choreography) and is performed by Matthew Baldwin, Dean Balie, Marcel Meyer, Jeremy Richard, Michael Richard and Callum Tilbury at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until May 21. Call 011 511 1988 or visit http://www.pietertoerien.co.za.
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