Janet Suzman and John Kani made history in 1987 at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, when she directed him in the first South African production of Othello to cast a black actor in the title role. Now, after the end of apartheid and momentous political changes, they join forces again in the modern-dress Hamlet that the Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town brought last week to Stratford's Complete Works Festival.
Fresh, direct and honest, the production creates what Suzman describes as a "rainbow Elsinore". The South African cast is mixed. There's an Indian Hamlet: Vaneshran Arumugam, who gives an outstanding performance, full of natural glamour, sardonic mischief and taunting self-possession. There's a white Gertrude: the wonderful Dorothy Ann Gould (who takes on this notoriously tricky part as well as any actor I've seen). And Kani, gradually exposing the fissures in the front of grizzled, statesmanlike integrity, plays both Claudius and the Ghost of Hamlet's father.
The production may be colour-blind, but this is a far- from-depoliticised version of the tragedy. Suzman places a sharply clarifying emphasis on how, before he's dispatched to England, the hero is in a situation that was painfully familiar in the old South Africa. He's an intellectual under house arrest in a corrupt tyranny. When Arumugam's Hamlet makes to leave in disgust for Wittenberg, sinister heavies in shades block his exit routes. When in antic disposition, he goads Claudius by subversively flaunting his prisoner status. The balconies of the Swan are caged off, making a cell of Elsinore, and the hero swarms up to them, clattering a tin plate and cup against the bars and whooping like an ape in satirically serrated protest. Theatre is non-literal, so parallels that would otherwise feel incompatible can coexist, catching the light at different moments, as in the echoes of Robert Mugabe in Kani's Claudius.
In its humane exploration of text and character, this Hamlet is everything that the Munich Kammerspiele's travesty of Othello, which preceded it at the Festival, was not. Handing out old chocolate wrappers in the belief that they are herbs, Roshina Ratnam's lovely, unforced Ophelia pierces the heart by the lonely look of troubled almost-recognition she directs at her brother, Laertes, when she proffers "rosemary for remembrance". For the sake of her son, Ms Gould's excellent Gertrude valiantly struggles not to unravel after the shocking discovery that her second husband murdered the first.
The company communicate the joy of performing Shakespeare, a doubly impressive feat given that they arrive bearing the sorrow of the death of Brett Goldin, one of their actors, who on Easter Saturday was found with an execution-style bullet in the back of his neck after a car-jacking. The RSC and the Baxter Theatre Centre are setting up a bursary in his name.
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