AN EVENT: Hamlet at the National Arts Festival
Show, don’t tell. The actors and puppeteers do just that, transforming Shakespeare’s timeless play into a visually immersive performance, the puppets’ expressive faces as engaging and sinuous as billowing fabric. Hamlet, directed by Janni Younge, is expertly innovative.
The choreography is eloquent, the puppets enhancing rather than constraining the work of the actors without weighing down the scene with useless gimmicks or dead weight. The focus is perfectly balanced between puppets and actors, at times moving as one, and at others intentionally separating.
The scenery and lighting are wonderfully matched, with the flowing material adorning the puppets, each controlled by actors, the loose material allowing the actors to smoothly separate from their puppet, splitting the characters’ personalities into multiples. They fade from the entity, experience and transmit their inner conflicts, before re-immersing themselves in a single being; transfiguring and adding complexities to fully form the personality of the protagonists. The puppets are freed from the constraints of gravity, creating a fluid and ethereal performance.
The rendition of Hamlet’s deep personal conflicts, and the madness that swells within him, are gripping; their expression is reinvented. Two actors are used to voice and control the puppet that is Hamlet, uniquely reanimating the way his troublesome thoughts are portrayed. This is particularly powerful during his famous soliloquies, when the visual puppets help add complexity, conveying the schisms within his conflicted mind.
Lighting is an integral means of embodying the supernatural and otherworldly elements of Shakespeare’s play. The positioning and movements of the puppets are perfectly correlated as the lighting and shadows bring their facial expressions to life. There are no eyes painted or woven into their sockets, but the lighting angles give free rein to our imagination: we see their eyes, dark as they are, and the wrinkles and blemishes in their faces take on their own free will.
Sound is equally important. It carries and crawls, changing the tones and themes of the room. Embodying the ghost of Hamlet‘s father, his strangeness stretches natural boundaries.
Director Janni Younge managed to modernize the play. Hamlet’s friendship with Horatio takes on new life using Hamlet mocking Polonius:
“Do you know me, sir? / Excellent well; you are a fishmonger.
As laughter erupts from the audience, they bump their fists. Although Younge may have pushed it a bit too far with Hamlet, the too big hole to fill – a miss.
Further reversing the original scenario, she places the work on our continent through Xhosa excerpts and shaping Laertes – the son of Polonius – on the model of the virtuous warrior, determined to avenge the death of his father, wronged by treason. meta-metaphorical “royalty”. Younge also makes heavy Shakespearean diction more accessible, but in doing so he unfortunately loses some of the power and clarity of the text.
Shakespeare’s works are known for their immaculate poetic essence. Younge is on the verge of not giving this aspect enough justice and power, but in the balance the force behind the spoken word is brought in by Andrew Buckland as the voice of Claudius and Mongi Mtombeni who is not than one of the voices of Hamlet. Some of the Bard’s words are lost by some actors running too fast through the text, a perennial error in Shakespearean productions.
The state of Denmark is read as a pitiful South Africa: when there is a dysfunctional royal family, it is reflected in the state of the state.
“What dreams are indeed ambition; for the very substance of the ambitious is only the shadow of a dream. / A dream itself is only a shadow. / Really, and I have the ambition for a quality so airy and so light that it is only the shadow of a shadow. / So are the bodies of our beggars, and our lying monarchs and heroes are the shadows of beggars.
Our “royal family”, the ANC, is collapsing, the effects are visible on the ground. The powerful are too caught up in their own ambition to pay attention to the people who have entrusted them with power.
We have been disempowered—literally. Shedding cut this intriguing and wondrous adaptation of Hamlet almost in half, removing the crucial sound and lighting needed to suspend disbelief, tearing us away from our immersion in this wondrous work. It was an ironic underscore.
This article first appeared on The Critter.