To be fair, this modern-dress staging has a certain sturdy simplicity. Presented by Cape Town's Baxter Theatre Centre, directed by Janet Suzman and featuring John Kani (the famed veteran star of Athol Fugard's The Island), this Hamlet is performed on a shadowy bare stage with grilles like jailhouse bars. And Denmark is almost literally a prison since the palace guards (in suits and dark glasses) block Prince Hamlet's attempted exit as soon as Kani's Claudius intimates that his troublesome stepson shouldn't think of leaving for Wittenberg. Though he has initially offered a peacemaking handshake, Kani is a dictator in the making, stony-faced and given to stamping his foot.
Later, Vaneshran Arumugam, playing the Prince, stomps around with a rolled-up blanket and battered enamel plate. He has sardonically adopted a prisoner's props, though that's not immediately clear because he looks more like a guerilla soldier with a dagger strapped to his leg.
As I recall, Suzman's previous South African take on Chekhov's Three Sisters was far more incisive, exploring the class and race relations of its time. Here she seems to lack an interpretative point, though one should doubtless celebrate the multi-ethnic and colour-blind casting of South Africa's Rainbow Nation.
The real star of this production is Dorothy Ann Gould as a beaming, fond, foolishly naïve and, later, frantic Gertrude. Roshina Ratnam also starts well as a sweet giggly Ophelia. But Kani, alas, is stiff as a board (as both the Ghost and Claudius), struggling with Shakespeare's verse and almost risibly failing to emote when his beloved is poisoned - pronouncing, "It is too late" with all the passion of the speaking clock.
Arumugam's Hamlet, meanwhile, looks like the glass of fashion and the mould of form (as Ophelia says): drop-dead handsome and modelling designer jeans. Intellectually, he clearly comprehends all his complex speeches and sporadically acts upset but - here's the rub - without any genuinely heartrending intensity. Though Suzman introduces nervous laughter on the battlements, Arumugam misses all Hamlet's humour; he's merely risible when he punctuates his philosophical soliloquies with "om" chanting and meditation/martial arts poses. What was he studying at Wittenberg? T'ai chi or not t'ai chi?
This production's flying visit is already over but other international Complete Works productions coming soon include A Midsummer Night's Dream from India and Ninagawa's Titus Andronicus.
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