William Shakespeare
Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town
Part of the RSC's Complete Works season Awan Theatre, Stratford

Vaneshran Arumugam and John Kani as Claudius. Photo by Niall Naidoo

There's no big idea 'illuminating' this production of Hamlet, brought to the Swan by the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town, and director and honorary associate RSC artist Janet Suzman. No bad thing too, some might respond.

Already this season we've had Nancy Meckler's Romeo and Juliet which treats the story as a play within a play, performed by two warring Sicilian families. The most outlandish aspect of this is the abandonment of knife fights for furious Riverdance-style tapping, accompanied by much banging of poles.

And last month's two-hour 'distillation' of Othello, by Munchner Kammerspiele, which retold the story, in essence, but swapped the high poetry of the original for a modern argot full of outbursts which would make Gordon Ramsay blush, has also brought down some critics like the Assyrians upon the Stratford fold.

The problem here is that Suzman starts off with a half-idea only to lose interest quickly and the result is a production which alternately swims in and out of focus. In a programme note, Suzman observes that expectations about the company's production would "inevitably" be excited by South Africa's history.

But while she eschews any direct reference, the transformation of the court at Elsinore into a literal prison - sharp-suited heavies wearing wraparound shades bar Hamlet's way when he tries to leave early on and there is a metal gaol against which Hamlet bangs a metal mug on the balcony - is suggestive.

Unfortunately the implications of this are not explored and the nature and limits of Claudius' power are similarly not investigated either, leaving the production, for all the idiosyncrasies of Hamlet's dress - poncho, vest and shorts, conventional enough. But the production has virtues enough to recommend itself - plenty of pace, an intelligent, detailed reading of the text, some strong central performances and a simple uncluttered design - ramped stage on which cushions and rugs are used to conjure up domestic interiors.

Tony-award winning John Kani is initially impressive as Claudius, one who smiles and smiles and is still a villain. He brings considerable gravitas through a commanding presence, born of his many years on the stage and his deep burnished tones, to the role. However, his doubling up as Hamlet's father is too underpowered. Speaking his lines as if on autopilot, the pronouncements of this Claudius are less likely to freeze Hamlet's blood than to send him to sleep.

I also initially liked Dorothy Ann Gould as Gertrude. Her nervous and fugitive smile as she glances anxiously between Claudius and Hamlet suggesting a woman bereft of any power in a male-dominated and oppressive society. This reading of the play is reinforced by Roshina Ratnam's slight and intensely vulnerable Ophelia, browbeaten and forced by her father to take on a demure and submissive role, while her brother is left free to live by a very different code of behaviour. Unfortunately, Gould's acting in the closet scene coarsens.

For me, the play, as mentioned, came into focus chiefly when the older actors were on stage with Royston Stoffels pre-eminently impressive as Polonious. Immaculate of dress and diction his character is very far from being a buffoon.

But what of Hamlet? Vaneshran Arumugam takes a while to establish himself but finds a very winning prince, tender - he moves to console Ophelia after berating her in the "get thee to a nunnery" scene - intensely gregarious and humorous. Unfortunately, I found the combination of his accent with the delivery of what are demanding lines led to whole speeches being smothered.

Clyde Berning impresses as a vital, personable Laertes while Adam Neill offers an unconventional Horatio, looking not unlike a younger Woody Allen. While Neill's work in the opening scene on the battlements is a little hysterical, he goes on to create a real sense of rapport with Hamlet. There is also good work from Nicholas Pauling, stepping in at short notice as Guildenstern and Marcel Meyer as Rosencrantz as a couple of innocents sucked into realpolitik.

The sense of loss that informs this play was sadly and brutally brought home with the murder of Brett Goldin, who played Guildenstern in Cape Town, on Easter Saturday, a tragic incident which very nearly resulted in the company's abandonment of the Stratford dates. The RSC and the Baxter Theatre Centre are setting up a bursary in Brett Goldin's name which will allow a young South African actor to come to the UK to enjoy classical training, partly at the RSC.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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