Cast: David Johnson, Peter Butler, Anthea Thompson, Julia Anastasopoulos, Jeroen Kranenburg
Director: Roy Sargeant
Venue: Artscape Theatre, until tomorrow
Standing ovations, especially on opening nights, have become regrettably commonplace in Cape Town, but when a relatively unsophisticated audience of 18-year-olds rises spontaneously to their feet amid enthusiastic applause after three hours of viewing a Shakespearean tragedy, performers and director alike have legitimate grounds for satisfaction.
All the more so since the avowed purpose of this production is to make a centuries-old text come alive for young people today.
This robust and refreshing version of one of the best-known plays in Shakespearean repertoire has several surprises. First of these is the omission of the usual shivering guards on duty in a howling wind on castle battlements as a preface to the action.
The year is 2006, and the kingdom of Denmark has been neatly transformed into the company of Denmark-RSA Shipping (Pty) Ltd, based in Elsinore House, Cape Town (clearly a desirable address). Political ambition makes way for the power associated with great wealth, and the entire work has been cleverly, convincingly, and coherently updated.
In a world of lap-tops, cell-phones, and e-mails, the grisly saga of Hamlet comes alive with unexpected power and intensity. There are moments when modernity intrudes with almost comic effect - as when Hamlet's cell beeps in the middle of his late father's ghostly visitation - but on the whole contemporary elements are judiciously introduced.
Apart from innovative touches that lend piquancy to this production (such as a different placing of the soliloquy on suicide, and the way in which the multiple deaths of the finale are presented), much of the work's merit lies in the calibre of individual performances.
Under Sargeant's direction, Anthea Thompson, her habitual ebullience held in check, gives an exemplary portrayal of Gertrude; Jeroen Kranenburg is an engaging and authoritative Polonius, and Julia Anastasopoulos makes a heart-melting Ophelia, with clarity of diction an added virtue. All are perfectly cast.
Brendan Murray's feisty Laertes is a gem, while among the minor roles Alexander du Plessis offers a pleasing interpretation of Horatio, a sympathetic foil to the turbulent Hamlet.
Peter Butler is excellent as the weak, corrupt, self-serving Claudius, but in the role of Hamlet senior he fails to convince, mainly because he is made to portray an individual who looks more like a refugee from an old-age home than a successful captain of commerce and elder sibling of Claudius, albeit slain.
David Johnson brings great talent to the eponymous lead, and in serious mode he is irreproachable. Unfortunately, once he feigns lunacy, he comes dangerously close to distorting Hamlet into a figure of unalloyed comedy; moreover, his exuberant coiffure calls to mind comedian Mark Lottering, which adds to the impression of goofiness and undermines the character's stature. Despite this, Johnson contributes significantly to the success of this production.
The stage set, designed by Paul Regenass, is elegant in its functional simplicity and is another major factor in the strength of this Hamlet. It has the sleekness of a contemporary boardroom, and converts with minimum fuss to an array of other areas of action. Its transformation into Gertrude's bedroom is particularly stylish.
With so much to commend it, this version of Shakespeare's masterpiece fills the double purpose of enlightening Grade 12s about their current setwork and affording pleasure to lovers of the Bard's theatre.