‘Ham­let’ as never staged be­fore

Cape Times - - LIFESTYLE - Robyn Co­hen AC­CLAIMED: The play is a homage to Per­for­mances at the The­atre on the Bay are at 7.30pm with shows for schools on se­lected days. Tick­ets R100-R180. Book at Com­puticket and for schools, call Michael at 021 438 3301.

FOUR hun­dred years ago or so, Shake­speare was the hit play­wright and his legacy con­tin­ues – as pos­si­bly the great­est play­wright of all time.

This month is be­ing cel­e­brated world­wide by Shake­spearean schol­ars and th­es­pi­ans as it marks the 453rd an­niver­sary of The Bard’s birth and the 401st an­niver­sary of his death.

Bard mile­stones abound but there is one that is less known. On March 31, 1608 (that’s the Fri­day that has just passed), Ham­let was per­formed on the Red Dragon – an East In­dia mer­chant ship – which was an­chored off the East Coast of South Africa.

This per­for­mance is widely re­garded as the first recorded pub­lic per­for­mances of a Shake­spearean play out­side of Europe.

It’s a re­mark­able story which in­spired Fred Abra­hamse and Mar­cel Meyer of Cape Town’s Abra­hamse-Meyer Pro­duc­tions to stage a Ham­let which pays homage to, and cel­e­brates, Ham­let as staged on our con­ti­nent in the 17th cen­tury.

Their pro­duc­tion, Ham­let is on at the The­atre on the Bay from April 12 to 29 and is di­rected and de­signed (set and light­ing) by Abra­hamse with cos­tumes by Meyer.

Six ac­tors play 21 roles in ad­di­tion to the prin­ci­ple roles.

The cast fea­tures: Meyer, Michael Richard, Dean Balie, Jeremy Richard, Matthew Bald­win and Cal­lum Til­bury.

It is the first time that we are see­ing this ac­claimed pro­duc­tion in Cape Town which pre­miered at the 2015 Na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val.

In 2016, it was staged at the 10th In­ter­na­tional Shake­speare Fes­ti­val in Ro­ma­nia and re­ceived a 12-minute stand­ing ova­tion.

When I heard about Ham­let on the Red Dragon, I thought “bizarre – okay – well the sailors had no Face­book, Tin­der or other so­cial me­dia, so it was a di­ver­sion while they were an­chored off the African coast.”

But as Abra­hamse and Meyer have ex­plained, the stag­ing of Ham­let on the Red Dragon was not a lark. It was a se­ri­ous un­der­tak­ing. In their reimag­in­ing of that event, Ham­let has been staged with the grav­i­tas that this great play de­serves.

Meyer re­flects: “As with our pre­vi­ous Shake­speare pro­duc­tions, like our three-man Richard III and our four-man Romeo and Juliet, we wanted to find a unique way to present Ham­let.

The Red Dragon per­for­mance seemed the per­fect con­text within which to re­frame this play and af­ford the au­di­ence an op­por­tu­nity to see Ham­let as they’ve never seen it be­fore.”

Meyer adds: “In many ways, Ham­let seems an ideal play for mar­itime per­for­mance: Gertrude refers to Ham­let be­ing ‘Mad as the seas and wind when both con­tend/Which is the might­ier…’ The thought of ‘death by drown­ing’ must al­ways have been at the back of the minds of the sailors aboard the Red Dragon.

“In Shake­speare’s plays, death by drown­ing be­comes a pow­er­ful im­age for trans­for­ma­tion.”

Do we see the sailors as them­selves and then per­form­ing the play?

Meyer: “Ham­let abounds with im­ages of the­atre, act­ing and ac­tors.

“Our pro­duc­tion fully em­braces the meta-the­atri­cal­ity of Ham­let: six con­tem­po­rary ac­tors play six Ja­cobean sailors who, in turn, play all the parts in Shake­speare’s Ham­let in­clud­ing the play­ers in Ham­let’s, The Mouse Trap, mak­ing it a play, within a play, within a play, within a play.

“The play is framed by a pro­logue in which we see the sailors pre­par­ing for their per­for­mance on the Red Dragon – the text we use for the pro­logue is Ham­let’s ad­vice to the ac­tors com­bined with a few lines from A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream – af­ter this brief scene we launch into the play proper.”

As to the de­sign, he adds: “A raised wooden plat­form (sym­bol­is­ing the Red Dragon) floats in a large black pool of wa­ter that floods the en­tire stage – 48m2 of wa­ter.

The cos­tumes are an ex­cit­ing syn­the­sis of tra­di­tional Ja­cobean cos­tume and orig­i­nal pieces that we imag­ine the sailors would have cre­ated for their per­for­mance.”

Masks are used ex­ten­sively to de­pict the du­plic­ity and de­ceit of some of the char­ac­ters.

This ex­cit­ing pro­duc­tion has a bril­liant cast. I am par­tic­u­larly look­ing for­ward to see­ing Cal­lum Til­bury as Gertrude.

He de­liv­ered a pow­er­fully nu­anced per­for­mance as Ce­cil John Rhodes – in Uhm – a 2014 stu­dent play he co-wrote with Alex McCarthy and which was di­rected by Koleka Pu­tuma.

Til­bury who grad­u­ated In 2014 from UCT with a BA in the­atre and per­for­mance says: “Even though Ham­let was writ­ten 400 years ago, it’s been a won­der­ful process putting a bit of my con­tem­po­rary self into Gertrude.

For ex­am­ple, as a fem­i­nist, it was im­por­tant to me to not let her just be a pawn in Claudius’s plot which is of­ten how she’s por­trayed.

Break­ing away from that his­tory and find­ing my own Gertrude through the clues in the text, was tough, given the story and her part in it – but I hope I’ve done her jus­tice.”

Af­ter the run at The­atre on the Bay, the pro­duc­tion will be on in Joburg, from May 3 to 21 at Pi­eter To­e­rien’s The­atre at Mon­te­casino.

Its US pre­miere fol­lows in Septem­ber at the an­nual Province­town Ten­nessee Wil­liams The­atre Fes­ti­val.

The theme of this year’s fes­ti­val is Ten­nessee Wil­liams and Wil­liam Shake­speare. Af­ter the fes­ti­val,

Ham­let will go to New York City for a brief sea­son in early Oc­to­ber at the La MaMa The­atre.

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