Review/interview: Epic Hamlet – opulent and operatic- mythical trance-like masque- Cape Town’s Abrahamse & Meyer Productions’ new staging of the Bard’s epic tragedy

Hamlet – by William Shakespeare  

Première season of new production by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, staged at Artscape, Cape Town, March 1-11, 2023  

Director: Fred Abrahamse
Set and costume design: Marcel Meyer
Lighting design: Faheem Bardien
Original score: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Cast: Matthew Baldwin, Marcel Meyer, Tailyn Ramsamy, Lungile Lallie, Nathi Mazwai and Thinus Viljoen    

Cape Town’s internationally acclaimed theatre company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, wrapped up a successful run of Hamlet at Artscape on the weekend (March 11, 2023). There was a rapturous standing ovation at the gala performance on Saturday (March 11), which crowned the season in which the company played to packed houses, mostly comprised of school learners. Hamlet is a school set work for Grade 12 in South Africa and the production was presented by the company in association with Artscape. The season was short and most houses, were sold out, but hopefully the production will return and there will be an opportunity for audiences to see what I would term as an epic scale Hamlet. Conceptually, it is opulent and operatic and at the same time lean and set on a vast, minimalist stage, utilising the full volume of both the main and rear stage of the Artscape Theatre to amplify the magnitude of the production. This is vividly heightened with an epic, almost cinematic original score and sound design by Charl Johan Lingenfelder and a stark, sculptural lighting design by Faheem Bardien.

The cast of six play multiple roles. The production, set in an imagined mythic world, riffs with a millennial energy in terms of what we are watching now in 2023 and what this play speaks to us as an audience. The themes reverberate loudly and tragically in relation to South Africa and the world – duplicity, collusion, treachery, revenge, betrayal –selling out family and friends – whatever the cost. Rather than being a period tragedy, it feels as if mythical creatures have stepped out of something like a contemporary Game of Thrones – the American TV fantasy series.  The TV series is very Shakespearean – succession, revenge. Watching this Hamlet, I felt that the protagonists were in a trance, perhaps high, with everything sharpened, reeling between a state of living and the dead.

In a recent conversation, Marcel Meyer of Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, reflected on this in relation to his design: “The primary palette for the production is black/gold and white…The central environment we finally settled on was of a large black and gold metal box that Hamlet is trapped in. It is simultaneously the court of Elsinore which Hamlet so fittingly describes as a prison, but also in a meta-theatrical way a vast, empty stage on which this greatest of all tragedies can play out in all it magnificent glory. Inside this metal box there is gold circle in middle of stage with a square on top of it-a gold platform and on top of that a large black rectangle which functions as the Danish throne, then the incestuous bed of Denmark, the stage for the play within the play and finally, as with all things in life, a grave. All this is framed by this big gold, bevelled proscenium arch to re-iterate the meta-theatrical nature of Shakespeare greatest ‘poem unlimited.’ Visually we wanted to set the play in a mythic Nordic world that feels both remote and resonantly contemporary at the same time. Hamlet is based on an ancient Scandinavian myth so we wanted the production to echo those mythic origins in a production that has an operatic scale and could utilise the maximum the full environment of the Artscape Theatre. Often, when you do a modern dress production of this play – it can lose some of its epic, political vastness. Most monarchs today are constitutional monarchs. They don’t wield the power that a monarch or tyrant would in Shakespeare day. So we wanted to restore a true sense of the primal mythic world that the Norse Hamlet legend originated from – drawing inspiration from great mythic films and series like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Mythic. Vast operatic.”

Because Hamlet is at its heart one of the greatest examinations of death in the Western dramatic canon, Meyer added that the delineation between the living and the dead is strongly foregrounded in this production: “The worlds between the living and dead are defined in terms of organic matter for the world of the dead and the mad and a stark, structural cold metallic world for the world of the living. On the rear stage we created a vast, ‘un-weeded garden’ of dry dead foliage, this is the world where the ghost of Hamlet’s father makes his first appearance and the world that Ophelia retreats to once she loses her sanity. The image of dry branches was also extended into the costume design: the ghost’s crown is made of dead branches as is Ophelia’s’ coronet that she dons in the mad scenes. These ‘organic’ crowns stand in strong contrast to the highly ornate, metal crowns the king and queen wear as their symbols of power. The entire play is revolves around the nebulous relationship between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the delicate balance between sanity and madness. In terms of a colour palate the Danish Court at Elsinore is an austere world of Black and Gold, the world of the visit troupe of players in rich, vibrant peacock colours of deep blues, purples and greens and finally the world of the mad and the dead, bright, brilliant white.”

This production of Hamlet was another triumph for, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, which has been nominated for sixteen awards for Cape Town’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards [the 58th edition], to be announced at a ceremony on March 26, 2023 at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre.

This 2023 staging of Hamlet is a new interpretation/version by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions. They wowed audiences in South Africa with a very different production of Hamlet, last seen in Cape Town in 2022, followed by a site-responsive staging in the play’s historical setting, Kronborg Castle, in Elsinore, Denmark. That production was  inspired by a performance of Hamlet which was performed in 1608, on The Red Dragon – an East India merchant ship – ship – which was anchored off the East Coast of South Africa. This performance of Hamlet on the ship, is widely regarded as the first recorded public performance of a Shakespearean play outside of Europe. The production was presented with six male actors, playing all the roles. This was a nod to the Bard’s day when men played all the roles and to that first recorded public staging of Hamlet on the Red Dragon – with the sailor men playing the roles.

For the 2023 Hamlet, the company has once again gone with an ensemble of six men and with a concept production- reduced cast and conceptual arc, pinging off its Scandinavian origin story [circa 9th century]. Meyer: “It is still only six actors for our new 2023 production – but this time on a very operatic scale. But it’s still a chamber ensemble which is very interesting in terms of the doubling and the layering of the doubling that Ophelia plays the grave digger and buries her own body. There are all sorts of interesting resonances in the doubling of roles. The costumes are intentionally large and operatic in scale to fill this enormous space that we are working in.”

The use of the stage is enigmatic in this production. The stage is almost like another character – with the apron of the stage raised so that the action juts into the audience. This enables Hamlet [Matthew Baldwin] to step out of the world of the play during the famous soliloquies and enter the world of the audience, to connect profoundly with us as he grapples with seminal universal questions of humanity.

Abrahamse & Meyer’s Red Dragon Hamlet premièred at the 2015 National Arts Festival in Makhanda [formerly, Grahamstown] in the Eastern Cape. In 2016, it was staged at the 10th International Shakespeare Festival in Romania – and Meyer told me that it received a 12-minute standing ovation. The production toured to the USA in 2017 and played a series of return seasons across South Africa, between 2017 and 2022. The tour culminated in Denmark in August 2022 and the production received five star reviews and standing ovations in the venue where Hamlet has been played by luminaries such as Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and Jude. I hope that Hamlet 2023– the mythical trance-like masque, will also go on a similar journey in South Africa and abroad. This innovative and edgy production, operatic and mythical; speaks truth to power and madness in this strange world of ours and Hamlet voices so much which needs to be heard in the present moment. 

Game of Thrones: Première season of new production of Hamlet, by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, staged at Artscape, Cape Town, March 1-11, 2023.  Pic: Danie Coetzee. Supplied.
Mythical trance-like: Première season of new production of Hamlet, by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, staged at Artscape, Cape Town, March 1-11, 2023.  Pic: Danie Coetzee. Supplied.

✳Images by Danie Coetzee of Hamlet, staged by Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, in Cape Town, Artscape, March 2023. Supplied.