IT was two years ago when this production of Hamlet debuted on the stage, first at the National Arts Festival and then in Romania.
Marcel Meyer has played the lead role since then and he recalls: “This production premiered at the 2015 National Arts Festival, where it played to capacity houses and standing ovations, and was the only production selected to represent the African continent at the very prestigious 10th International Shakespeare Festival in Romania in 2016.
“The festival presented 46 events from four continents, with productions from countries as diverse as Great Britain, Japan, Israel, South Africa, India, Portugal, Poland, Bulgaria, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Romania. In Romania, the Hamlet company took 15 curtain calls during a 12-minute standing ovation – a very moving and humbling moment for the entire company.”
Providing greater context on this re-imagining, he reveals, “Shakespeare most likely wrote Hamlet around 1600, a year or so after the Globe Theatre was built. The play was probably first performed at the Globe (or at court), with Richard Burbage in the title role and Shakespeare, himself, in the role of the Ghost. The title page of the first published edition of the play indicates that by 1603, the play had been presented to great success in London and at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The performance of Hamlet aboard The Red Dragon, off the coast of Sierra Leone, is regarded as the first of a Shakespeare play outside of Europe.
“On September 5, 1607, while Shakespeare was writing Antony and Cleopatra, William Keeling, captain of the British East India ship, The Red Dragon, wrote in his journal: ‘We had The Tragedy of Hamlet; and in the afternoon, we went altogether ashore, to see if we could shoot an elephant.’
“The performance of Hamlet was acted by Keeling’s sailors in the presence of African merchants, chiefs and a Portuguese translator. Three weeks later, Keeling logged that his sailors performed Shakespeare’s Richard II during the journey between Sierra Leone and the Cape of Good Hope.
“A second performance of Hamlet is noted by Keeling on March 31, 1608, off the east coast of South Africa. Here the play was performed in the presence of Captain Hawkins. Hawkins was the captain of the East India ship, the Hector, which was in the same flotilla as The Red Dragon. Captain Keeling’s journal entry on that day reads: ‘I invited Captain Hawkins to a fish dinner and had Hamlet acted aboard, which I permit to keep my people from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.’ This performance, off the east coast of South Africa, serves as the inspiration for our production.”
He also touches on the deeper message, saying: “In our current era of ‘post-truth’ politics, where politicians ‘smile and smile’ and prove to be villains, theatre remains the one place where we can gather as a community to interrogate the truth.
As long as ‘something is rotten in the state’, Hamlet will always be a seminal work.
“Our production sets out to fully embrace 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 Mousetrap, making it a play, within a play, within a play, within a play.”
The other actors in the production include Michael Richard, who takes on the role of King Claudius. Dean Balie doubles as Polonius and Horatio, with Jeremy Richard as Laertes, Matthew Baldwin as Ophelia and Callum Tilbury in the role of Queen Gertrude.
On sharing the stage with them, Meyer reveals: “We are very blessed to have had such an incredible company of talented actors, with such unique talents and at the top of their respective games. So the energy of this ensemble, combined with the unbelievable power of Shakespeare’s text, makes for riveting theatre.”
With Fred Abrahamse at the helm as the director, he adds: “Fred is an absolute actor’s director. It is such a privilege to work with him. His vision for each production is always so clear and he always creates a space where actors can do their best work. He also allows actors to really own what they do – while at the same time always serving his cohesive world of the play.”
Shedding light on the set, he adds: “Because of its unique concept, this production has offered us great scope as designers. First, a raised wooden platform (symbolising The Red Dragon) floats in a large black pool of water that floods the entire stage – 48 square metres of water.
“The costumes are an exciting synthesis of traditional Jacobean costume and original pieces we image the sailors would have created for their performance. I have designed a series of historically accurate Jacobean costumes that the sailors wear as their basic costumes. As they play the various characters in the play – a series of additional costumes have been created.
“The costumes for the King and Queen are made from old canvas sails that the sailors have elaborately decorated with rope. The crowns, too, are made from rope and adorned with large metal nails that the sailors would have had to repair the ship. The production also uses mask-work in some of the doubling. In this imagining of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, because of their deceitful natures, are represented as masked figures in beautiful handmade masks. The production is also tonally graded in black, white, silver and various shades of grey.”
● Hamlet is currently on at Theatre on the Bay until April 29. There are nightly performances at 7.30pm with daytime shows on various days. Thereafter, it moves to Pieter Toerien’s Theatre at Montecasino from May 3 to 21.