July 24, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Baxter) @ The Swan Theatre

MAY 1ST 2006 (backdated)

And now for the full-on performance! My seat wasn’t as good as it was for the dress rehearsal, but no matter, the production was just as it had been two days ago- excellent.

The problem with seeing any production twice in a short space of time is, of course, over-familiarity. This can be good, though, as you notice more subtleties and minor points.

As with ‘Othello’, this was a modern-dress production, located in a South African mobland where John Kani’s Claudius was flanked by suited bodyguards and Polonius carried a clipboard. The bars across the balconies in the Swan added to the prison atmosphere in which Hamlet was trapped.

Vaneshran Arumugam was a youthful and incredibly energetic prince, who climbed the bars making monkey noises as he feigned madness and practised tai-chi during the all too famous soliloquy. Witty and sarcastic, he and the other young actors worked hard to bring out the inherent dark humour in Act One, as Hamlet sarcastically observed his peers and drew his plans. The far shorter second act, starting with the scene of Polonius’ murder and ending with the final death scenes, contrasted sharply in its downward spiral to chaos.

John Kani, whose work I’d already studied when working on Athol Fugard’s plays back as a Theatre Studies undergrad, was in the end a surprising disappointment. While suitably intimidating and dangerous as Claudius, some of his acting felt somewhat stilted, most notably as he died in a moment that actually drew laughs from the audience. This was redeemed in moments such as his prayers, where he knelt and started speaking in Afrikaan, a haunting moment as the young Hamlet crept up behind him for the kill.

Elsewhere, Rosencrantz and the replacement Guildernstern got a lot of stage time and their bumbling added much humour; the Players offered up a stylised, Eastern-themed version of ‘The Mousetrap’ set to a drum; and a young but haunting Roshine Ratnam had a shaky start as a somewhat whiny Orphelia, but then carried off her madness in style, putting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle into its grave and then stripping topless as she clawed at herself.

It wasn’t a ‘Hamlet’ that would change the world, but it carried a lot of resonance. If nothing else, it reminded me that much of the play can be very funny, and really emphasised the pressures that the youths of the play are under from their elders.

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