ArtSpoken & Reviews

The word’s the thing

Lesley Stones
05/05/2017 12:03:06

Lesley Stones: Hamlet goes back to basics.

It’s a brave move, staging Hamlet at a time when theatre audiences have become more used to the fluff and fun of musicals and lightweight comedy.

This Shakespearean epic is a demanding piece for the audience as well as the actors, and the production playing at Montecasino is free from any gimmicks or modernisation that might add allure.

It’s one for the die-hard Shakespeare fans, for people prepared to listen and focus on every line, to admire the craft of the writing and the art of the actors, for almost three hours of intensity.

Director Fred Abrahamse, who also designed the set and the lighting, has chosen to recreate one of the earliest recorded performances of Hamlet, which took place in 1608. The crew of the ship the Red Dragon had moored off the coast of South Africa, and performed Hamlet on board to keep themselves from idleness. Abrahamse puts us back on deck, with billowing sheets as sails and the eerie creaking and groaning of a ship moored in the dead of night.

We watch a play within a play, as the sailors are handed their lines and begin to strut their parts.

The six strong actors are all adept at switching between several different roles, and the compact nature of the show makes it relatively easy to follow the plot.

For a quick recap, Hamlet’s father, the king, has been murdered by his brother, Claudius, who immediately marries the widowed Queen Gertrude to take the throne for himself. Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father and swears to extract revenge.

Marcel Meyer makes a fabulous Hamlet, friendly and jovial then intense and tormented, but never giving way to histrionics. His clear and considered enunciation makes the soliloquies mesmerising. Michael Richard as King Claudius speaks with the command and authority of a veteran actor, but his speed and familiarity with the text sometimes sees the sentences coming out a little too quickly for anyone less familiar with the lingo of the day.

Dean Balie is a steady hand as Polonius and Horatio, while Jeremy Richard as Laertes, Matthew Baldwin as Ophelia and Callum Tilbury as Queen Gertrude are also convincing and utterly watchable.

The stage set is fairly minimal, as it would be on a ship, with a water trough around the edge that breaks up the levels and provides a handy dunking pool or waterway for ghostly perambulations.

The costumes designed by Meyer are excellent - nothing over-the-top that a crew in the 1600s couldn’t have achieved, and perfect for the period. There’s a good use of sound effects and atmospheric music too.

Overall, this Hamlet has gone back to the roots where the word is the thing and success hinges on the skill of the actors, not the extravagance of the design or the brashness of a reimagining.

The staging is solid, rather than exciting, and several seats remained empty after the interval. It’s going to be a hard sell, I’m afraid.

Hamlet runs at Montecasino Theatre until May 21. Tickets from Computicket.

Lesley Stones is the 2016 Arts Journalism Awards winner in the reviews category, presented by the National Arts Festival and Business & Arts SA.

This former Brit is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine.

She was the Information Technology Editor for Business Day for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.

Lesley Stones
Freelance journalist
Related Venue:
Montecasino Complex, Fourways Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa