November 20, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (Two Gents Productions) @ The Oval House, London

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Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (The Madness of Hamlet) began with Queen Gertred singing Hatina Musha, a traditional Zimbabwean funeral song. It ended with two jolly gravediggers suddenly collapsing, dead. Yet as bleak as this may sound, Two Gents Productions’ take on Hamlet found a warmth and vivacity in its relationship with the dead, informed by the Shona concept of ancestors and a physical engagement with the notion of ghosts. This was most apparent as Hamlet and the Ghost finally saw each other and broke into smiles and laughter before embracing. The joy of this moment, so often an instance of horror or trauma, testifies best to the freshness and vitality of this production.

At eighty minutes long, and based on the First Quarto, this was more of a response to Hamlet than a straight production. Performed in township style, Tonderai Munyevu and Denton Chikura played all the roles. Each character was explicitly identified with a gesture – Gertred with a hand on her cheek; The King with his arms raised aloft (a gesture of power explored at the Gesture Lab); Ofelia with a pout and hands on her hips; Corambis bent double. The effectiveness of these gestures in creating character allowed actors to exchange roles frequently, the characters becoming presented elements in an easy storytelling style.

On a simple plain set of boards, with the only props a bowl-shaped instrument and a mat. The two props allowed for an undercurrent of ritual throughout, whether Gertred washing her hands or the King kneeling to pray. The spartan and open nature of this world ignored class and formal distinctions, instead locating status merely in, for example, the King’s heightened stance and Corambis’s grovelling servant. Rossencraft and Gilderstone, meanwhile, were trilling clowns, their hands waving in the air as Hamlet glared at them, bemused. The effect was one of very human relationships, the characters breaking away from received conceptions – Ofelia, in particular, was a sexually confident and flirtatious figure, who we found out later was pregnant by Hamlet.

What was lost in rich verse speaking, then, was made up for in human insight. A confused and persecuted Hamlet addressed the audience matter-of-factly, while Gertred was imagined as lonely and easily hurt. The representative nature of the performances oddly served to suggest rich hidden lives for the characters: while the performances told us about the characters rather than becoming them, rarely have the cast of Hamlet felt so real.

The arrival of the players made for one of the most important and fascinating scenes. Munyevu performed the Player/Hecuba in what I assume was Shona, acting out the Trojan queen’s laments in exaggerated melodrama which was both amusing and touching. For the performance itself, four audience members were dragged onto the stage, including my friend Justine as Ofelia and myself as the King. Placed in position (with appropriate gestures), we provided an onstage audience for the mimed poisoning, after which Hamlet approached each of the human puppets and demanded of us if we recognised it. With I as the King made to nod, the production broke apart, and Munyevu resumed the role to order us off the stage in fury.

It was Hamlet’s close and genuine relationships with his family and friends that most struck me. His tenderness towards Gertred and Ofelia, and his lack of confidence in pursuing his ends, were perhaps what made his moments of hesitation so believable; and, in a wonderful moment, Laertes’s return was staged with he and Hamlet kneeling beside each other, Hamlet quietly telling Laertes that he loved Ofelia more than any brother in a gentle, sincere tone. The tragedy of this Hamlet was in the slow corruption of these close relationships, and the production took full advantage of the unique Gertred/Horatio scene to show a connection even between these two.

It was this scene that began the final, tremendous section of the play, as one of the cast turned to the audience and told us "And that was when it all began". Abandoning the play proper at this point, the duo fully embraced the storytelling aspect of the production and began to present scenes out of sequence according to the tale they wished to spin. The two became gravediggers, singing a song ("Kupenga Kwa Hamlet") in high spirits as they acted out motions of digging and laid the mat in different locations of the stage to indicate graves. Turning to the audience, each of them told a story in turn as a fictional "friend" of the deceased – a courtier friend of The King, a student who had known Leartes in France etc. With heads shaking and a tone of regret, they spoke of the bad decisions that their desperate companion had made, leading to their death; then presented the relevant bit of that character’s death. Ofelia, Gertred, Leartes, the King and Hamlet in turn were thus introduced, their inevitable death mourned, and their final actions carried out; in between which they came back to life as the gravediggers, who whistled, sang and dug.

In the play’s final moments, Horatio stood beside Hamlet who knelt on his death bed, smiling broadly as he looked towards death, recasting his last words as a voice of triumph and progression, recalling his earlier happiness at seeing his father. He lay down to die, and then instantly leapt up again as the Gravedigger, and the two continued their digging in a flurry of movement, before suddenly collapsing into a blackout; the point being, of course, that death would eventually take even them. The purpose of the production in this closing sequence, then, became to confront the reality of death as an inevitability to be embraced, rather than something to fear. The cheerful exuberance of the gravediggers could have trivialised their deaths, but instead placed them within a broader spiritual context that demonstrated the gulf between death and life was not nearly so wide as we might believe; and the dead were to be mourned, but perhaps so too were the living.

This amusing, moving and wonderfully performed Hamlet establishes Two Gents as one of the productions to really watch, having now proved that their unique and accessible style translates to both comedy and tragedy, entertaining while drawing out powerful implications from Shakespeare. It’s yet another reminder that even such an institutionalised play as this can, with some imagination and a disregard for tradition, truly become alive again.

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