Review: Janni Younge’s Hamlet is an extraordinarily beautiful knotted an intertwined coil of puppet and human creatures – premiering at 2022 National Arts Festival, Makhanda

Janni Younge’s Hamlet – premiering at 2022 National Arts Festival, Makhanda  

Direct booking link:
Duration: 135 minutes
Venue and times: Rhodes Theatre – June 27, June 28 (two performances), June 29

Director: Janni Younge  

Human cast members

Mongi Mthombeni
Siyamthanda Sinan
Andrew Buckland
Roshina Ratnam
Tshiamo Moretlwe
Beviol Swartz
Samkelo Zihlangu

Puppet cast

National Arts Festival, Makhanda #NAF2022:

June 23 to July 3, 2022 Visit for the full programme and bookings  

#NAF2022 #ItWillChangeYou  

“When we have shuffled off this mortal coil…” Hamlet. Janni Younge’s Hamlet is an extraordinary knotted an intertwined coil of puppet and human creatures. This brilliant production is premiering at 2022 National Arts Festival, Makhanda. I was at the opening – last night- June 27. There are two performances today – June 28 (2pm and 6pm) and one tomorrow, June 29 (11am). That adds up to four performances.

Hamlet’s spiritual and emotional relationship to the world

Younge foregrounds the personal journey of Hamlet. The political intrigue has been cut. Hamlet is “spiritually and emotionally in relationship” to his world, says Younge. It is the world that we share. “He has this conflict within him: Which is the path to follow?”

Cutting of the text- to get to the essence – setting right this situation that is out of joint.

Younge: “We went for the essential story of Hamlet and his psychology. For me the essential question that he asks himself- ‘time is out of joint – oh cursed spine – if ever I was born to set it right. He has within him – of what it is to set this right. One part of him is pulling towards vengeance, towards acting in the physical world towards setting things right – an eye for an eye. The other part of him feels the spirituality of being – the connection to the essence of humanity. Whether you do or don’t do a murder is kind of immaterial. It’s about where you are spiritually and emotionally in relationship to your world. So he has this conflict within him: Which is the path to follow? To set right this situation that is out of joint. We focussed on that journey. We removed all the political drama out of the story… If is effectively about half of the original script. To me [in this production], you are seeing the essentials of who Hamlet is, in the cut that we have made. I think that the original is about four and a half hours.”

Fibres of connection

In this beautifully textured and layered production – and I am talking visually and emotionally – we see the cast of humans and puppet creatures coiled, tangled, meshed together. The puppets (made from head with hessian cloth bodies) look like they are made of clay and have emerged from the depths of the earth. Clay would have been too heavy. Younge tells me that puppet heads have been carved from polystyrene and have been inserted with wooden mallets. Younge: “The surface is hessian. Everything in the show is hessian- covered in different textures of hessian- some of it dyed.”

We see tails of rope – like knotted and braided dreadlocks – dangling onto the stage – threads seeking other threads. Younge: “Fibres of connection which weave us and our relationships together.” The ties that bind, connect and disconnect us?  Younge: “Yes, it’s entangled but beautifully woven together- fibres of our beings – that emerge from under the ground – from our subconscious – the past – everything which is behind us and underneath us. In a way, the ghost is the element that sets this world into motion and the ghost is the ancestor- speaking from beyond this world, into the space of the mind.”

Connected-ness between human creatures and puppets

The puppetry work is extraordinary in that the puppets and puppeteer performers are coupled and are enmeshed within the space – the set. Some puppets have three puppeteers at work. Some have one. There are instances when human performer step out as speaks as human and there are instances where the puppet is the focus and we cannot see the human hand. There are moments where, pieces of puppets, cloth become disembodied and are played with and which magically metamorphose into images and props.  

The entire cast of humans is wonderful. The principals are utterly mesmerising:  Mongi Mtombeni and Siyamthanda Sinani as Hamlet, with Andrew Buckland as Claudius and Roshina Ratnam as Queen Gertrude. The riffing of voice and body work in the Hamlet character is a tour de force. Watch as Mtombeni and Sinani work together – voice, gesture, arms, feet. Buckland – his voice, body/puppet, presence is breathtaking. Ratnam is one of my favourite puppeteer artists. I have been privileged to see her in many shows with puppetry and she is beguiling in this production as Queen Gertrude.  

Non- verbal interludes – floating and dangling above

There are respites, where there is no dialogue and we see a body of animate and inanimate – human performers and puppets – moving as one- with music.  Watch out for “What a piece of work is man…” and be totally in awe of the liminality – the convergence of earth – and another sphere.  It is a lament and howl of what it means to be human and what signify.  Younge: “The connected-ness between the puppets and the set, that you talk about … they are all manifestations of one world. For me, that world is the inside of the mind. But I am very happy, if people feel it differently.”  Younge: “These small openings [no dialogue] are used to expand the relationships particularly between Hamlet and Ophelia. So many words [in the play]. Beautiful words but we used it a bit like a musical score in itself; the puppets and their life have to float on all those words and the meaning they evoke more than directly communicate.”

Astounding Hamlet -puppet and human cast – cleaved together

This is meant to be a quickie review, with insights for viewers at National Arts Festival – to get to the last performances- tonight, June 28 and tomorrow, June 29. I have a lot more to say, but I must shuffle off to my mortal coil of shows at NAF. Janni Younge’s Hamlet is a magnificent piece of theatre- with the medium of puppetry embedded in human performance and human performance embedded/connected/co-joined with the puppets so that they move together in conjuring up the conflicted story of Hamlet, trying to make sense of his world –past, present, future –earthy, spiritual- madness and sanity.  Hamlet is a wow of a production – visually and conceptually- with the human and puppet cast creating theatre magic, in evoking an intensely spiritual and emotional journey of Hamlet

Liminality of life: Janni Younge’s Hamlet- Old Hamlet (the ghost) Samkelo Zihlangu, Siyamthanda Sinani, Tshiamo Moretlwe, Roshina Ratnam, Beviol Swartz. Pic: Bronwyn Lloyd. Supplied.

❇ Featured image: Janni Younge’s Hamlet. Pic: Bronwyn Lloyd. Supplied.