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A triumph for the first night of Hamlet

2015-07-07 16:38


The Tragedy of Hamlet 

Adaptation: Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer 
Actors: Marcel Meyer, Nicholas Dallas, Callum Tilbury, Dean Balie, Jeremy Richard and Mathew Baldwin 

5/5 stars 

From a young age, I have been interested in Shakespeare. Maybe it was the time and effort people took to say simple things with all the trappings of the English language or maybe it was, as so many people identify, the universal themes that continue to resonate today. And yet, the opening night of The Tragedy of Hamlet at this year’s National Arts Festival was moving and magical for a whole host of new reasons. 

This particular performance is based on one of the earliest recorded performances of Hamlet, on a ship off the east coast of South Africa. And drawing from 1608 and breathing the life and context of 2015 into the production, the director and cast created a uniquely wonderful Shakespeare experience. 

From the amazing pool of water surrounding the “ship” to a very real, looming spectre, the company created a multi-sensory experience that took an already very visceral and important classical play and imbued it with wonder and awe enough for a contemporary audience. 

This production was carried off by an all-male cast, who all had to play multiple roles and, as they shared in the post-performance discussion, this meant that everyone was fully aware of everyone else on stage – making for a very natural, well-oiled performance. 

Drawing from my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth, the portrayal of Hamlet by Marcel Meyer had the audience “rapt withal” as he commanded the stage and the character as if he had been rehearsing the pain and madness rather than the short time the company actually used to put together the play. 

In the post-performance discussion, it became clear that, for Meyer, the trick is not just in acting but in doing all the research possible to create a nuanced, informed protagonist. 

Marcel Meyer as the Prince of Denmark in The Tragedy of Hamlet at the Rhodes Theatre, Grahamstown, 06 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. Abrahamse & Meyer Productions brings this new rendition of the tragedy as performed by the crew aboard The Red Dragon off the East Coast of South Africa, one of the earliest recorded performances of Hamlet, in 1608. Picture: Jane Berg/CuePix

Nicholas Dallas, who took on the role of the charming but despicable King Claudius, also took hold of the stage and its audience, saying his lines both during and after the show (in the discussion) with the authority and charisma that makes Claudius such a despicable and delicious feature of Hamlet. 

Callum Tilbury and Mathew Baldwin spoke with the audience at length about the approach to playing female characters – and both agreed that trying to be overtly effeminate was not the way they wanted to go. And while their performances were both rather convincing, I certainly found Tilbury’s portrayal of the Queen to be far more resolute than Baldwin’s at-times flat depiction of Ophelia. 

Dean Balie, who played both Horatio and Polonius, is certainly to be praised for fulfilling both roles with an impressive vigour and subtly balancing seriousness and lightness – which to my mind is essential in the context of Shakespearean tragedy. 

The director Fred Abrahamse is a force of Shakespearean adaptation and, in addition to countless other successful works, has shown himself to be master interpreter of the text, themes and lessons that make plays like Hamlet so appealing to such diverse audiences. 

Hamlet is well worth three hours of your festival day – in fact I may well go and see it again. 

» The Tragedy of Hamlet runs from July 6 to July 8, with two performances on the 7th and 8th. Ticket information is available at

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