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October 16, 2011

Hamlet (Ketterer's Men) @ The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford–upon–Avon

I've recently been reading Marvin Carlson's The Haunted Stage (2001), which deals with a phenomenon in watching and making theatre that Carlson calls "ghosting". This is, effectively, the outer frame which shapes what an audience experiences in the process of attending a theatrical event, the collective resonances carried by actors, buildings, texts, scenery, everything that is reused, recycled and re-experienced. He concentrates particularly on Hamlet as the most haunted play in the Western canon, partly because of the play's own treatment of ghosts but more because of the long stage history that inevitably acts on every new production.

If Hamlet is already a haunted play, this production by the newly-formed Ketterer's Men was more haunted than most. For not only did we experience the "haunting" familiar to all productions of Hamlet: the pregnant pauses before the famous soliloquies, the pre-emptive laughter at the appearance of the already-familiar Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Osric, the collective watchfulness of Claudius's face as he himself watched "The Mousetrap"; but we also experienced the more visceral haunting of an old friend. Ketterer's Men were got up in honour of Lizz Ketterer, who died earlier this year and had always spoken of doing a production of Hamlet with her friend Will Sharpe, with the two as Ophelia and Hamlet. This production thus ghosted a version that never was but was infused with Lizz's life and spirit, and the collage of photographs dominating the programme ensured that her presence was felt by all. I've spoken briefly about Lizz before and don't need to do so again, except to admit that I can't be anything approaching impartial coming to an event that was so emotional for so many people I care about.

Happily, this was one of the best Hamlets I've ever had the fortune to attend, and certainly the fullest. Clocking in at just under four hours with two intervals, a conflated text and few really substantive cuts (the Rynaldo scene was skipped), this bare and intimate production put Shakespeare's play front and foremost, allowing this reviewer at least to really "hear" Hamlet for the first time in a long time. A mix of modern and period dress emphasised the relative formality of characters (Claudius in smoking jacket, Hamlet in hoodie, Gertrude in long gown etc.) and simple props (pikes, letters, daggers) supplemented the visual where necessary, and a low rostrum provided a level at the upstage end of the thrust, but this was an actor's production.

Sharpe's brooding Hamlet was intense and withdrawn, given to the occasional joke but mostly committed to his anger. Soliloquies were delivered slumped against walls or sitting on the stage, and he frequently turned lines in on himself, particularly his third repetition of "except my life". Softly spoken and natural in most of his dialogue, the moments where he lost control had particular impact in their relative volume: whether screaming against Laertes of his love for Ophelia or finally rejecting the nervous Guildenstern. A genuine affection for Ophelia and for his friends softened the character, but this Hamlet stood alone.

Elizabeth Sharrett's Ophelia was heartbreaking. Plainly dressed, she was tender towards her brother (even repacking his bag for him) and mildly irritated by her father. She played the nunnery scene with reluctance and thinly-veiled pain as she returned the letters, and then with tremulous shock as Hamlet began his tirade and screwed up the letters. While the force of this scene came from Sharpe, the emotional impact was in Sharrett's courage as she continued standing despite her world clearly falling apart. In her madness, she entered wearing a hoodie and thick mascara, which ran down her cheeks as the tears fell. The image of Laertes cradling her, the two weeping, as she sang "He is dead and gone" in broken lines spoke to the loss better than anything I've seen before on stage.

Beyond these two outstanding performances, the work of the entire ensemble was excellent, bringing out resonances and stories that are perhaps sometimes lost under the trappings of large-scale productions. Peter Malin (who also directed) was a sorrowful Ghost, pleading with Hamlet for his love and action, and delivered a fine showpiece speech as the Player King. The scene in Gertrude's bedchamber, with Stephanie Surrey vulnerable in pyjamas and Sharpe in particularly kinetic mode as trapped her on the stage, eventually grew into another intimate portrait as the Ghost stood over Gertrude and looked at her in love, while Hamlet sat between. The intimacy of this scene contrasted with Steve Quick's portrayal of Claudius throughout. This sickly politician clapped the entire audience for their support in his first scene and relied on a winning grin and the presentation of benign power throughout, a facade which was slowly dismantled as events got out of hand.

The play's humour was strong throughout, giving relief to the intensity of the main action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (a game José A. Pérez Díez and Matt Kubus) wore flat caps, multi-coloured scarves and vacant grins as they toddled around the stage; and the scarves reappeared in the hands of the English Ambassador in the play's closing moments. David Waterman's Polonius rambled on relentlessly and muttered to the audience; the Player King offered protest at Hamlet's incessant demands; John Curtis's Osric was flamboyant and extravagant, and Helen Osborne's faux-gormless laughter as the Second Gravedigger brought the house down.

Even in the small space, the play never strayed too far from its roots as a fast-paced revenge tragedy. In another standout performance, Gareth Bernard posed a vivid threat as Laertes, taking command of the stage whenever he was on it and needing both Gertrude and Cecilia Kendall White's loyalist Voltemand to restrain him from the steady Claudius. The final duel, fought with large swords, was a surprisingly sophisticated piece of fight choreography and brought the play to a nailbiting conclusion (even despite the ghosting of a well-trodden plot; always a sign of a good production).

The near-full text allowed for some unexpected treats, including a highly amusing dumbshow version of "The Mousetrap" performed in high camp before the main event and a full showing of Matt Stead's imposing Fortinbras. One thing I noticed, in the context of a full production, is how far Horatio (played suitably nervous yet steady by John Conod) is overwhelmed by events. Here, behind Conod's big glasses, he was clearly a spectator rather than a participant, reminding me of Young Lucius in the BBC Titus Andronicus. Standing for the audience, seen through Horatio's eyes the production became a relentless and painfully confused series of movements and betrayals, leaving no place for innocents or bystanders.

If I do have one complaint, it's that there were a couple of occasions where dialogue was delivered at too brisk a clip, at the expense of emphasis and reflection (though considering the production's running time, one was also glad the company didn't dither). That's a small point, though, in an evening that did both Lizz and Shakespeare proud. I've not been moved by Hamlet in this way before and, even without the backstory, this set a bar for how Hamlet can still "mean" even after so many iterations. Outstanding, and hopefully we'll see far more of Ketterer's Men.

May 14, 2011

Hamlet (Vital Signs) @ The White Bear Theatre Pub

I was surprised to see such a sparse audience for this, Vital Signs Theatre's new production of Hamlet at the White Bear. While Hamlets are two-a-penny at the moment, it's rare to get a chance to see a straight version of the first quarto (Q1). While the programme's claims that it's the first time the 1603 text has been staged in the UK in a decade need to be slightly qualified (the productions of both the Tiny Ninja Theater and Two Gents Productions were both based on Q1, albeit adapted), it's a big enough event that I would have hoped the academic audience alone would pack the tiny pub theatre out.

Imogen Bond's production was part of an MA project investigating audience reactions to subverted expectations, looking at how we respond to familiar texts made unfamiliar. Thankfully, though, this did not prevent her from taking creative decisions and presenting a fully-rounded production. Academic experiments can sometimes be a little dry on stage, but Bond served Q1 well by giving us a full, fast and entertaining Hamlet. This did mean that, at times, the unique features of Q1 were subsumed slightly to the desire to "do" Hamlet, most notably in the interest in character psychology. Where Q1 arguably features less characterisation and stricter adherence to stock figures and plot-driven narrative, one remained very aware of the interior lives of Bond's cast, who looked for psychological determination for their actions - whether Hamlet leaning wistfully after the departing Ofelia, Horatio building a complex and nuanced friendship with the Dane, or Rossencraft and Gilderstone forming a nervy and insecure partnership. I should stress, I think these were strong and thoroughly enjoyable decisions which served the production well. As an experiment, though, I was interested in how expectations of Hamlet informed the building of rounded characters who behave in psychologically realistic and explicable ways. If a production was trying to underline the differences between Q1 and "traditional" Hamlets, then a reduced focus on character would be a much more effective approach.


While I felt, then, that in certain important aspects this wasn't fundamentally different to several other productions of Hamlet I've seen, the strength of Bond's belief in the efficacy of Q1 meant that the production stood proudly alongside other versions on its own merits, and I preferred it to the bloated National version of last year. Pacy and well-performed, the company used the intimate space to create a stripped-back production that drew its audience directly into events. Beginning in complete darkness, the opening battlements scene was lit only with handheld torches; actors' faces gradually became visible as the torches were flung about. The Ghost (Stephen Connery-Brown) rose from the audience and stood silently in a spotlight while Horatio and the guards backed away from it, shaking.

The rough '40s setting (tuxedos, ballgowns, long coats etc.) made for a pleasant but strained formality to the court, where the moping Hamlet (Jamie Matthewman) sat disconsolately and whined while the courtiers coughed politely. We found ourselves amid the broken family dynamics of the privileged classes, with their games and entertainments: the duel was played with one participant stationary in a circle while the other paced around the boundaries attempting to nick his opponent; The Mousetrap was played as a kind of cabaret, with the elegant Player Duchess (Pamela Banks) singing into a microphone and the dumbshow playing as a competitive dance among smoking hoods. The hint of noir influence was completed by Katie Hayes's outstanding Horatio. With her long jacket, aloof air, unspoken loyalties and watchful eye, she could have stepped straight out of Raymond Chandler or even Casablanca, and lent the production much of the subtextual subtlety which might have detracted from the features of Q1, but worked wonderfully.

Dialogue was delivered at a rollicking pace, sometimes at the expense of clarity - I particularly struggled to make out Marcellus's lines, perhaps ironically given the production programme's acknowledgement of Marcellus's centrality to the memorial reconstruction theory. Matthewman's Hamlet handled the language extremely well, however. Speaking with a strong Yorkshire accent, he began much more slowly than the rest of the cast, signalling his melancholy while slouched on a bench next to his mother. When alone, his soliloquies were delivered while seated, leaning towards the audience and shrugging. This mournful Hamlet, however, was also a consummate actor, and sprang to vigorous life when performing his madness or manipulating groups. Tall and strong, he was an intimidating presence in these livelier scenes. When he was challenged over the whereabouts of Corambis, he grabbed and put a knife to the throat of the geeky Rossencraft (Clive Keene) and picked up the diminutive Gilderstone (Lucy Lill), spinning her around as she screamed in terror. He was a physical match for Leartes, with whom he grappled for a long time in Ofelia's grave, and the Q1 text justified a more visceral approach to violence, including holding his sword against the King's throat while the latter prayed.

Surrounding this dynamic and unstable Hamlet were several other characters who were defined by their relationship to him. Hayes's Horatio spoke volumes with her body language, whether lowering her head sadly as Hamlet prepared for the duel or taking his hand in hers as he spoke of his father's funeral. The air of slight detachment that allowed her to watch events was belied by a deep-rooted affection for Hamlet which didn't spill over into reductive sexual terms but connected Hamlet to a constant positive emotional centre. Hamlet acted without guile in turning his head to watch Ofelia (Rebecca Pownall) in early scenes, betraying a genuine affection for her which made the nunnery scene surprisingly difficult to watch, as he shouted tearfully and pushed her away. While Pownall made little impact in these early scenes against Matthewman, she was outstanding in the mad scenes. Rattling her lines out at a tremendous pace, but with complete clarity, she showed herself to be entirely unhinged. Copying the Player Duchess from earlier, she tapped at an imaginary microphone and sang her ravings in broken snatches. She broke into wailing when she slipped into mentioning her father, and pulled wildly at her clothes and hair while the on-stage spectators stood, still and shocked. In the small space, these scenes were truly rivetting.

Light relief was provided by Maurice Byrne as a disappointing Corambis, who mugged unnecessarily to the audience in his asides and didn't add anything significant to the production apart from a well-staged death scene, that saw him attempt to reach through the curtain to challenge Hamlet and pull the arras down on himself. Rossencraft and Gilderstone were surprisingly sober, the slightly awkward classmates of Hamlet and easily subdued by him. The production focussed most of its comic energies instead on the clowns. The Player Clown was eminently watchable in a wordless role that saw him react angrily to Hamlet's advice to the players and need to be restrained by his fellows. The Gravedigger was also played as a formal clown, with Ofelia doubling as his young assistant. Their sequence began with some odd comic business as they exchanged a series of suitcases, before laying out a grave on the floor by draping a blanket over two benches and creating a dip in the middle. The two were amusingly irreverent, and the Gravedigger tossed skulls carelessly out of his hole. With white faces and red noses, however, they also evoked familiar images of sad clowns, and their formal cap-doffing respect for the body of Ofelia (a piece of clothing borne in by four people) was touching.

Some familiar characters drew less attention. Fortenbrasse was barely present, though Sean Turner provided a strong military presence in his brief appearances. Robert Lonergan's King was softly-spoken and sententious, and probably suffered the most from comparison to the fuller characterisation of the more familiar texts. His villainy was in his actions rather than in his demeanour, and more often he seemed at a loss in the face of Ofelia's madness and Hamlet's actions. He came into his own in conversation with Leartes though, defusing the latter's anger and quietly planning their subsequent actions. Diana Katis was a strong Gertred, and I particularly enjoyed the chance to see (for the first time ever) the scene between Gertred and Horatio, which established a strong female-female relationship and lent pathos to the Queen's fate by emphasising her relative innocence.

The play's closing moments made use of the cramped stage space to good effect, as Fortenbrasse stumbled over the bodies that cluttered the space and a weeping Horatio held Hamlet's body in the centre of the stage. This tight image accentuated the speed and violence of the play in this version, a relentless and unthinking tragedy. While it may not have been as radically different to conventional Hamlets as I would have hoped, Bond and her cast pulled together a coherent and consistently interesting production that made a strong case for the efficacy of the play even without the familiar touchstones.

March 17, 2011

Hamlet The Clown Prince (The Company Theatre) @ Warwick Arts Centre Theatre

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This was my third Hamlet in a year with a running time under two hours, which is a trend I'm hugely appreciative of. This time it was a rare UK performance for Mumbai's Company Theatre, with its brilliant and hugely entertaining take on the play through the medium of clowning.

Performed in English and "Ghibberish", a highly articulate but nonsensical babble which continually interrupted the lines and underscored frantic mime, Rajat Kapoor's production burlesqued Shakespeare with all the love and respect that informs the best parodies. Actors poked fun at the lines, the references, the structures and the style of the play, yet Shakespeare's words provided an anchor that rooted the chaos in a meaningful structure, guiding the clowns' own stories to a point.

The conceit was a troupe of clowns deciding to put on Hamlet instead of one of their more usual song and dance shows, with mixed results. Atul Kumar's Soso was the star clown, a droll and often miserable creature who growled at the audience for laughing inappropriately and maintained a breathless sarcatic patter throughout. The ringmaster was Sujay Saple's Laertes, an impresario desperately trying to keep the plot on track and jealous of his lead's arrogance. Nemo, played by Namit Das, was the frustrated-actor-turned-clown who wanted Kumar's role, and kept thrusting himself into the limelight. Puja Sarup's Buzo was Soso's wife, a heavy drinker and operatic diva who couldn't resist making snipes at her husband; and Fifi (two names were listed in the programme, Kalki Koechlin and Rachel D'Souza, though I don't know which of these was tonight's actor) was the new addition to the troupe, a playful innocent with a temper. Finally, Fido (Neil Bhoopalam) was the Clown among the Clowns, a lively and good-natured buffoon with a plethora of contemporary references, some funky dance moves and a tendency to lapse into modern colloquialisms.

The performance of Hamlet by these clowns was hugely truncated, and often in the form of commentary that said more about the clowns than about the characters. Most explicitly, Soso and Buzo's marital discord lent a very specific inflection to their performances as Hamlet and Gertrude, with Buzo accusing Soso loudly of lacking commitment (cf Hamlet's indecision) and the rest of the cast commenting loudly on "Hamlet's" inappropriate love for his mother. Polonius's verbosity, meanwhile, became an extension of Nemo's professional frustration, an attempt to drag out his scenes for as long as possible. One of the most effective clowning moments came as Hamlet sneaked up behind Polonius and wrapped gaffer tape around his face, clamping his jaw up and forcing him to perform in mime for several subsequent scenes.

The production started with the lights slowly coming up on the figure of Hamlet, standing in a spotlight in full clown make-up and holding a briefcase which he kept throughout the production (the impression being of the itinerant traveller). The other cast members emerged from the shadows to throw dust in his face, add flowers to his lapel, slap him etc. (very reminiscent of U2's Numb, actually) in a montage sequence of visual motifs that would recur throughout the play. In a stunning sequence of Ghibberish, with enough English thrown in to give a sense of structure, Hamlet then proceeded to monologue the entire story of the play. As an induction, this witty sequence acted to draw the audience into the play's language and curious means of communication. The unintelligible words became a communicative bridge, creating a dialectic of active interpretation with an audience that relied on a shared willingness to find meaning.

Knowledge of Hamlet was presupposed, and made explicit when Soso arrived late for the play itself, citing the difficulty of finding Warwick Arts Centre and being distracted by the centre's director. Critiquing the other clowns' choice of play, he offered a series of 'spoilers' to the audience, which the others attempted to counter by accusing him of lying "It's a happy play!" Even once the play itself had begun, the company freewheeled through the plot, pointing out to the audience how quickly they were doing it and briefly mentioning the scenes (inevitably involving Polonius) that they had cut out. There was no Fortinbras, no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, no gravedigging and very little of Laertes; Hamlet here primarily offered a structure for looking at simple relationships of love and family.

It was in Hamlet's relationship to the women that the play's heart was revealed, albeit always with an undertone of self-mocking laughter. The dynamic between Soso and Buzo was affectionate and abusive, and the latter's descent into incapable drunkenness had its moving elements. By the closet scene, she was no longer capable of remembering her lines and instead began flirting with audience members, much to Soso's annoyance. Her attempts to find a sozzled dignity in Gertrude's regality were particularly entertaining, while also giving Hamlet a genuine barrier to re-engagement with his mother, whose loyalties between position and maternal responsibility were problematically divided. With the innocent Ophelia, on the other hand, a more romantic strain was introduced. The two saw each other across the stage, the lights turned to red and the two began walking towards each other in slow motion. As he reached her, without missing a beat, Soso slid his briefcase onto the floor and used it as a step to draw level with the much taller Fifi's face for a tender kiss. This was the beauty of the clowning aesthetic - it allowed for moments of true pathos without ever descending into mawkishness or irony; the absurdity of people was foregrounded in the kindest possible way.

Fido was the clown who most embraced the comic metatheatricality of the enterprise. Accompanied by his pet egg (which hatched partway through into a chicken glove puppet), he laughed at himself constantly, breaking out into dance and controlling the apparatus of the theatre (for Claudius's plot with Laertes, he shouted "Conspiracy light!" and ran into the obedient spotlight that appeared). His Ghost was forbidden from speaking, and so he instead performed in a series of dance manoeuvres and a game of charades to communicate his intentions. His constant references to pop culture included extensive discussion of The Lion King's relationship to Hamlet and self-conscious quoting from The Dark Knight, drawing attention to his Joker-ish make-up.

To describe the joking, however, does a disservice to a production which fell or rested on rapport. A hugely appreciative audience engaged wholeheartedly, warming to the clowns' ribbing and embracing the chaos. Whether it was Polonius getting bored and wandering off the stage instead of pretending to be dead; a random poll of the crowd to ask "what's your be-or-not-be dilemma?"; or Hamlet enjoying the fact that the rest of the cast had to be frozen in position while he rambled on in soliloquy, the entire piece was built around a shared willingness to entertain and enjoy that relocated Hamlet within the storytelling mode adopted by Two Gents in their Zimbabwean Hamlet a couple of months ago. If the play is now being rediscovered as a series of recognisable and universal motifs that serve to authorise and structure new stories and improvisations, that can only be a good thing in my eyes.

This wasn't all about chaos, however. Fifi's Ophelia was beautiful in her madness; she performed simple magic tricks, revealing flowers from her sleeve which she then threw down to audience members (complimenting them on their catching ability). As the rest of the cast watched and cried out, she then slowly kneeled down for her drowning, the stillness of her body a startling contrast to the pace elsewhere. A similar image closed the play. After a frenetic sword fight, the stage was littered with bodies, and Hamlet was once more standing alone. Gesturing to the bodies around him (who glugged, burped or twitched appropriately), Hamlet pointed out the futility which, he argued, had been present from the beginning. As the lights slowly faded, he reminded us what he had promised to tell us and, with nothing remaining, "the rest is silence". Followed immediately by a chaotic, clowning curtain call, the juxtaposition of stillness and silliness remained the production's most powerful aspect, reminding us once more of Hamlet's inherent metatheatricality and continual ability to be reappropriated.

December 08, 2010

Too Many Danes

How many Hamlets can we sit through?

In many ways, we're still in the shadow of the RSC and Donmar "celebrity" productions, more recently joined by the National's major stab. It's one of the big institutional shows, and it's had a good run round the main theatres over the last year and a bit.

But then there are the myriad smaller versions I've caught: the RSC Young Person's version, Tom Cornford's reconstruction, the Zimbabwean Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, the National's Prince of Denmark.

You'd think this might mean Hamlet was being exhausted for the time being, but oh no. First up is Northern Broadsides on tour; then the Factory Hamlet is returning to the Rose Kingston. The Young Vic is mounting its version with Michael Sheen, and the RSC YP version is still doing the rounds. And finally, Shakespeare's Globe are doing a touring version.

A serious question arises. However good Hamlet is, does it really warrant this level of public saturation? I love the play, but I do find productions of it (with notable exceptions, such as Two Gents) rather too similar to one another to justify the continuous repetition. It's partly to do with the cultural baggage that Hamlet drags along with it: directors are happy to put slightly different glosses and tones on it, but the essential production remains the same in a way that, say, the similarly huge number of Macbeths avoids through breathtaking variety.

Here's a plea to the directors of all the forthcoming shows (and I know the Factory one will at least manage this): PLEASE temper your reverence to the text with an awareness that we are spoiled for Hamlets. Play with it!

November 20, 2010

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.