Directed by Fred Abrahamse. Set/ lighting design by Fred Abrahamse. Costume design by Marcel Meyer. Composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Production by Pieter Toerien. 
Fight director Anton Moon. Presented by Abrahamse-Meyer Productions. Nightly 7.30pm. Special school shows on selected days. Theatre on the Bay until April 29.  

Attention! The highest, to the lowest in this land. If you are currently advocating withdrawing Shakespeare’s works from school syllabuses, please attend Hamlet, Shakespeare’s great tragedy, now showing at Theatre on the Bay.

Seeing, or rather hearing, this Abrahamse-Meyer production will surely give space for this proposal’s reconsideration. Not that the production is faultless. It isn’t – as is discussed later.

Without elaborate sets, costume trappings and a large cast, Shakespeare’s superlative word craftsmanship is laid bare to hear, to learn and understand. An excellent model for pupils for whom Hamlet is a setwork.

For South Africans whose daily speech is all too frequently punctuated with “you know”, “ums”, “like” and incomprehensible verbiage: Shakespeare’s rhythmic mix of blank verse and prose creates a fascinating language we should borrow from to improve our everyday vocabulary and speech… after all we constantly draw upon Polonius’s advice: “neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “unto thine own self be true”.

Accepted, the Elizabethan period writing style, on which Shakespeare structured his authorship, is not suitable for today’s fast, snappy culture. Yet, tune into Hamlet’s (Marcel Meyer) soliloquy, in which he expresses his anguish over the incestuous marriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude (Callum Tilbury) to his father’s brother, King Claudius (Michael Richard).

In only 16 words: “That it should come to this! But two months dead, nay, not so much, not two…” Shakespeare captures Hamlet’s inner torment, psyche and foretells his unhappy fate. Shakespeare never waffles. Every word has intrinsic value. Through his characters, he explores individual contradictory quirks.

Over 400 years ago, without the benefit of Sigmund Freud, Shakespeare unwrapped an extraordinary psychological knowledge of our deep-rooted emotional behaviour. He did this by exposing graft versus honesty; lies versus truth; lust versus caring; hate versus love and how evil people manipulate the gullible.

Off the South African coast, on board the British East India ship Red Dragon, a performance of Hamlet took place on March 31, 1608. On that historic date this Abrahamse/Meyer production is based. Sailing under sail was hazardous, lengthy and boring, threat of pirates or drowning ever-present.

Endeavouring to occupy his sailors' minds, the Red Dragon’s captain, William Keeling, brought along copies of Hamlet from England, then tasked his men to produce this play, men of course playing women’s parts.

In this production Dean Balie plays Horatio and Polonius; Jeremy Richard is Laertes, Marcellus, Rosencrantz and First Player; Matthew Baldwin is Ophelia, Guildenstern, Grave-Digger and Osric.

Director Fred Abrahamse’s set is remarkably simple yet exceptionally effective. A moat surrounding a wooden platform represents Red Dragon’s deck and the sea. Upstage, flecked by lighting changes, a huge sail billows above a fabricated exit and entrance curtain.

Backed by composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder’s sounds suggesting a creaking ship, water lapping and wind blowing, director Abrahamse’s Hamlet unfolds.

As Hamlet, Meyer both physically and artistically dominates. His scene when, possessed by his father’s ghost recalling his “foul, and most unnatural murder,” chills the marrow. Consumed by revenge and spurning his beloved Ophelia, he feigns madness to bring down King Claudius.

In another superb scene he destroys his relationship with his mother by challenging her remarriage – “a little month, or er those shoes were old…”

A towering performance. Perhaps his commanding presence overpowers others. However, for a primal murder and lustful marriage, between King and Queen there seems little connection. Tilbury’s clasped hands, turned head and eyes (often) looking beyond King Claudius, renders his Gertrude particularly aloof.

Although Balie easily switches vocal registers from youthful Horatio to quavering elderly Polonius, his left hand, constantly twitching his scarf and tabard, detracts from his otherwise sincere characterisations.

Twinned in black and white masks and costumes, bright-sparks, Jeremy Richard and Baldwin play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – Hamlet’s childhood friends – as the hypocritical sycophants they prove to be.

Hamlet, after seeing through their deception and after a terrifying “drowning” of Guildenstern, tells his mother: “I will trust them as I will adders fang’d.”

As fey, fragile Ophelia, in love with Hamlet, Baldwin’s simple maiden portrait tugs the heart. It's after Hamlet kills Polonius that she crumbles into insanity and drowns herself. A moving reading. As the lone gravedigger and speaking in regional accent, Baldwin magically produces former court jester Yorick’s skull from under a shroud. Superbly timing his comic repartee with Hamlet, he deserves high praise for this scene.

Hamlet is not the only character seeking revenge. Laertes does too. Played by Jeremy Richard, his rage hearing Hamlet is responsible for his father, Polonius's, death and his sister Ophelia’s overrides their friendship and he’s swayed by King Claudius to fight a “friendly” duel with Hamlet… using a poisoned rapier. Although a minor character, Laertes plays a major role in this tragic play’s denouement.

Meyer’s understated costume designs could well be manufactured from available materials aboard a 17th century ship.

Whatever its flaws, this production is novel, imaginative, inventive, interesting, thought-provoking and a strong lesson.

See it at Theatre on the Bay, book at Computicket or 021 438 3301