‘Hamlet’ as never staged before
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.