The Comedy of Errors, Watermill Theatre Newbury, 27 April 2011
Mistaken or confused identity seems woven into Propeller’s DNA. So it was no surprise to find that their production of this early comedy went down a treat.
The production appeared to be located in a contemporary Spanish resort popular with British tourists.
The set had the same basic structure as that used for Richard III. There was a central wall with two doorways at ground and upper level. A large graffiti covered the lower part of the structure. A striped maypole stage right held up multicoloured string lights which spread out in various directions across the stage.
The cast appeared in mirror shades and football shirts, with a foreign looking policeman strutting around occasionally pulling up his leather trousers. Music played, with a figure dressed in a bright red outfit and red sombrero sat at a table stage right, while others sat at a similar table stage left.
After the singing stopped we got straight down to the red-suited Duke’s conversation with washed-up Aegeon. The Syracusan merchant’s wallet was shown to be empty in order to demonstrate the paucity of his “substance”. The threat to Aegeon was made plain by the Duke pointing a revolver at his head, but it was lowered as the ruler of Ephesus relented and allowed the old man to tell his story.
To aid understanding, the various sets of twins appeared at the upper doorway when referred to by Aegeon. His “goodly sons” appeared combing their hair in smart outfits, then the two Dromios with unkempt mop haircuts and skinhead jeans.
At the end of this expository sequence the Officer took Aegeon away. Here, and on other occasions, his steps were accompanied by noises made on a duck whistle which made it sound as if his leather trousers were constantly squeaking.
The pair of Syracusans arrived in Ephesus in the midst of a great party (1.2). The Merchant warned them to pass themselves off as from Epidamnum. When he mentioned Syracuse he spat on the ground, a gesture that his charges copied as if learning the basics of Ephesan prejudice.
The Merchant pointed at the nearby crowd indicating the “certain merchants” he had to meet. Their cheers told us that they recognised him.
Having sent his own Dromio on an errand, Antipholus gave us his “drop of water” speech. Stepping to the front of the stage, he struck a deflating tone by reminding the jollied audience that “He that commends me to mine own content commends me to the thing I cannot get.”
The sequence carried great clarity of meaning, proving that Propeller can create guffaws of laughter from their comedy but also inject gravitas where the text requires.
Dromio of Ephesus came to drag his master home to dinner, but he ran back again after having been accused of stealing the money recently entrusted to him. Antipholus of Syracuse came forward to tell the audience that the town was “full of cozenage”. The Ephesan crowd gathered conspiratorially close behind him as if to illustrate the point.
In what became one of the running gags of the night, Antipholus put his hands over his eyes and said rapidly “Mother said if I close my eyes they’ll go away” reverting to a childish defence mechanism.
The entry of the two principal female characters at the start of the second act was the moment at which the production moved beyond simple frivolity into something like a hallucinatory cheese dream.
The sight of Robert Hands’ Adriana was difficult to expunge from the memory. He teetered around on heels, his thin legs covered in leopard skin print leggings, wearing a shocking yellow top. He fluttered enormous fake eyelashes from below a leopard skin headband. A voice like a Monty Python ratbag sprang from between his brightly painted lips.
He was like a drag queen as envisioned by Gerald Scarfe. Adriana’s sister, Luciana, was played by David Newman as a slightly more normal figure in a blue dress and pink glasses.
Bells rang to indicate it was two o’clock as Luciana sat at a table stage right while Adriana complained about her absent husband. She upbraided her sister for her “servitude” towards men, blaming this for keeping her unwed. Luciana contradicted her, saying she had “problems of the marriage bed” at which point she wrinkled her nose at the banana she had just peeled and put it down in disgust.
Dromio of Ephesus found the pair and was soundly kicked on the backside by Adriana for his failures. These and other similar kicks were accompanied by sound effects. Dromio seemed to enjoy his rapid series of “quoths” telling the story of his encounter with Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana’s “Quoth who?” was timed perfectly to complete this funny sequence.
Adriana finally kicked him out prompting Dromio’s question as to why he was being spurned like a football. Her complaint that she sat at home and starved “for a merry look” was particularly comical given her grotesque appearance.
The reference to the chain promised her by Antipholus was accompanied by a ding from an instrument. This sound was made almost every other time the chain was mentioned.
After her final words in the scene before exiting, Luciana had a tuba thrust into her arms for no apparent reason by one of the onstage crowd. She paused and walked off with it.
Antipholus of Syracuse sat eating an ice-cream at start of the next scene (2.2), but his pleasure was cut short. Singing “Just one cornetto” he was interrupted by one of the Ephesan crowd who took it from his hand, completing the song in the advert with “Give it to me!”
His Dromio mimed driving a car as he returned. He parked, got out the door and remotely locked the invisible vehicle, performing a very accurate impression of a central locking system. He tossed the keys into the air and tried to catch them but they were caught by Antipholus instead.
Antipholus punished Dromio with a particularly viscous neck lock causing his servant to croak that he could not breathe. However, the pair soon became more relaxed as Dromio joked about Time. They turned to the audience pointing out a bald man as an example of someone who “grows bald by nature” and his near neighbour as a potential hair donor. The text’s idea of bald men being compensated with wit was offered to the bald man in the hope of appeasing his frowns, and accompanied by an adlib “Are we okay now?”
Adriana and Luciana burst in through the rear doors. Adriana strode downstage and posed with her arm outstretched, an index finger pointing directly downwards to her side, which enjoined Antipholus to approach her.
Adriana’s haranguing of the wrong Antipholus was accompanied by some karate moves from Luciana. Adriana ended up coiled around Antipholus, as a vine to his elm. Commenting on this in an aside, Antipholus effortlessly disentangled himself from Adriana and stood aside, leaving her in the same position as when she clung to him. Agreeing to “entertain the offered fallacy” he slipped back into her embrace.
Dromio used his master’s line about his mother telling him the nasty things would go away if he closed his eyes, before crossing himself in fear at these strange events. Though this did raise the interesting question as to who exactly the Syracusans thought their mother was.
Luciana carried out a very effective open hand strike on Dromio, all of which seemed to impress Antipholus, creating the basis for his future affection for her.
Adriana’s instruction to her “husband” that they would “dine above” that day was half-whispered in a conspiratorial way. She mouthed it again while pointing upwards as she went through the centre doors now representing her house. The clear indication was that “dining above” was code for something else.
At the start of act three the Ephesan Antipholus and Dromio wandered in worse for wear. Their companion Angelo peed against the back of the set with an offstage sound effect provided by water being poured into a glass. Balthasar, the merchant, stood stage left and tried to prop himself up.
After berating Dromio, Antipholus spoke to Balthasar who suddenly woke up and said “chilli sauce” as if reliving a recent visit to a kebab house. He eventually collapsed onto Antipholus as the latter was speaking to him.
Dromio rang the intercom on the door of Adriana’s house. Voices answered from inside but no one was visible. On discovering that someone else was inside claiming to be Dromio and keeping the door, the Ephesan Dromio complained about the loss of his office and name, but then reconsidered this as a positive thing in the light of the disadvantages. Luce’s voice was heard from inside but she never appeared.
In his frustration at being refused entry to his own home, Antipholus beat at the door and eventually smashed the intercom buzzer right off, stamping on it as it continued to buzz despite being completely detached. Lots of other sirens and alarms began to wail. Poor Dromio, who had been sent to fetch a crowbar, ended up being hit with the implement.
Antipholus gave up trying to enter and decided to visit another “wench of excellent discourse”. The Courtesan suddenly appeared. She was a miniskirted figure with an oversized bust who introduced herself with a gruff, manly “Alright?” Antipholus’ reference to “this woman” was slightly sarcastic as if his attribution of gender was somewhat tendentious.
Another reference to the chain produced another ding as everyone exited into the Courtesan’s house. Antipholus paid her cash as he entered.
We got a clue as to what Adriana’s reference to “dining upstairs” might have meant at the start of 3.2. Antipholus was chased out of her house semi-naked and hid in the front row of the audience obliging them to bunch up to accommodate him. Adriana rushed out in pursuit dressed in a naughty outfit. She cried “I thought you liked it!” Luciana followed and began the scene’s scripted scolding of Antipholus and how he had forgot “a husband’s office”. Looking at all the possible meanings of that phrase, the staging was completely justified by the text.
Luciana and Antipholus sat down at a table centre stage. She took a hip flask and poured him a small shot. She then poured herself a huge drink, which she downed in one just as she spoke the words “Alas, poor women”. The juxtaposition of this laddishness with her sighing over female frailty was very amusing.
Antipholus wooed her, but she fought visibly against this temptation. Her emotional struggle to resist became a physical struggle as she and Antipholus traded karate blows. Antipholus matched her every move, which seemed to impress her. When he instructed her saying “Give me thy hand” she gave it, but then withdrew and exited to fetch her sister.
Dromio entered fleeing from the kitchen maid. His description of the greasy fatness of his pursuer was accompanied by gestures such as trudging through grime and pointing at a sweaty armpit.
The part where her girth was measured in ells had Dromio measure a distance from one side of the stage to the other. When the audience laughed at this he hit back saying “It’s not funny!” He held his hands out side to side and then rotated them so that he was measuring the same distance up and down, concluding that she was “spherical, like a globe”.
The exchange about finding countries in parts of the maid’s body was a standard run through with exploding carbuncles being demonstrated. An original joke came when Dromio explained how the maid had correctly itemised identifying marks on his body. The pause in his comment “A great wart on my left…arm ”was filled by a gesture to his left ball.
In the face of all this strangeness, both Antipholus and Dromio planned to flee Epheus. They invoked their mother’s advice in the face of peril and a nail violin provided eerie background sounds.
Angelo, a track-suited spiv, entered with the chain, whose mention prompted another ding. With the chain around his neck, Antipholus repeated his thoughts about the strangeness of the town, and at the end of this scene the interval came.
The cast’s “performance” continued during the interval. Their impromptu band played throughout the Watermill complex. Given what they could have been doing during this down time, this was a considerable commitment of effort.
The Officer introduced the second half by barking at the audience “No phones! No phones!” He sang “The Girl from Epidamnum” to a woman in the front row, telling her she was the most beautiful woman in all Bagnor and how they could go back to Spain together and make babies.
He was interrupted by a call on his police radio. He listened and repeated “Si” at intervals to indicate he understood and then said “Antipholus… gold chain… Angelo… goldsmith” and then exited.
Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio entered from seeing the Courtesan, who accompanied them. The master sent his servant to fetch a rope. The curious lines (23-24) ending in “I buy a rope” were said enthusiastically.
Angelo pursued Antipholus for the money for the chain, which he owed in turn to the merchant. Repeated mentions of the chain produced repeated dings. Eventually the Merchant paid the Officer to arrest Angelo, who reacted by getting the Officer to arrest Antipholus.
The Syracusan Dromio, previously dispatched to find a ship, entered by miming the piloting of a boat, which he tied up. He was castigated for not bringing the rope. Needing money for bail, Antipholus presented Dromio with a large key, whose appearance was accompanied by a clunking sound effect. This was to unlock a desk containing a purse.
Adriana appeared wearing a hideous face pack (4.2) to tell Luciana her woes. She spat out insults against her husband, which were then mollified by her line “I think him better than I say” which she spoke on her knees.
Dromio of Syracuse entered hurriedly with the key. When Luciana asked him why he was out of breath, his reply “By running fast” was quite sarcastic. More dings accompanied further mentions of the chain as Dromio explained the nature of Antipholus’ debt. A bell chimed prompting Dromio to hurry back.
Unlike his brother, Antipholus of Syracuse was having a good time. He sat at a table (4.3) drinking a cocktail and recounted how offers of money and goods were falling into his lap. The Ephesan crowd sat by him and sang, expressing his general satisfaction with the chorus from That’s The Way I Like It and singing “You are Gold” from Gold by Spandau Ballet when the subject of money was mentioned.
His Dromio entered with the money being fetched for the other Antipholus. The ensuing confusion was interrupted by the entry of the Courtesan. The Syracusans each held out two index fingers as crosses to fend her off as they fled. They tried using Harry Potter style spells such as “Expelliarmus-packet-of-crisps-us” but they were ineffective. The Courtesan’s parting speech told us that she was going to tell Adriana what had happened.
Dromio of Ephesus entered with the rope hidden behind his back as a surprise for his master, who was of course expecting bail money. Antipholus kicked both Dromio and the Officer, grabbing his baton. He took a swipe at Dromio but then froze before connecting with him.
Dromio stepped out of position and delivered his long speech (27-37) in which he complained of his hard life and accompanying beatings. This was performed in spotlight as “hearts and flowers” played on the violin behind him. He encouraged the audience to join in with empathetic ah-s at appropriate moments. Once the speech was over he stepped back into position and received a hefty swipe from the baton.
The arrival of Pinch was another show-stopping moment in the production. Backed by Adriana, Luciana and others, he launched into a tele-evangelist style song and dance. He took off his jacket and then his shirt and then stopped, telling the audience “I bet you’re glad I’m not taking any more off”. He spoke to a woman on the front row asking her “Are you Kate Middleton? Are you that woman that put the cat in the wheelie bin?” He also made jokes based on local references.
Getting back to the gospel show, he said that he took cash or credit cards. Pinch produced a wireless terminal into which Adriana willingly inserted her card and entered her pin.
Antipholus hit Pinch when he tried to take his pulse. The doctor’s response was to try to cast some sort of spell on him. He gestured with his outstretched hands as if some magical force was flowing from them. A sound effect indicated the radiated power. The attempted exorcism fitted with his lines about casting out the devil.
These moves did not work despite, repeated attempts. In frustration Pinch turned his magic hands on his followers who instantly recoiled under their influence. In the end, he turned his hands on himself, and was hoisted by his own petard, falling to the ground with a groan of “Bugger!”
Antipholus got involved in a big, fractious argument with Adriana about what had happened during the day.
Antipholus and Dromio were imprisoned in individual wheelie bins and wheeled around the entire auditorium amid general uproar. Once back in position on stage, one of them meowed as they emerged briefly. This was probably the first and last time that a Shakespeare production had referenced the “cat in the wheelie bin” case.
The pair eventually popped out of their bins. Dromio showed his bound hands, saying that he had “enter’d in bond” for his master. They were then wheeled off to Adriana’s house.
Having established why Antipholus had been placed under arrest, Adriana scuffled with the Courtesan as the two of them acted out their rivalry.
The Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio entered, one carrying a fishing net and the other a plastic seaside spade. Seeing the others, they began wielding these implements like light sabres making appropriate sound effects. After the others had run off, they completed the sword play by turning off of the swords, again making the relevant noises themselves.
At the start of act five Angelo and the Merchant met the Syracusans and wrangled over the chain. Antipholus and Dromio used the net and spade as light sabres once more to fight them off.
Adriana and the others, including the Abbess, entered and the fishing net was set on fire. Luciana took some nunchucks out of her handbag and swung them wildly back and forth, lunging at Antipholus rasping “Come on then!” in a manly voice.
The Syracusans ran off in the direction of the priory, represented by the centre doors. The early entry of the Abbess, standing centre stage in her sexy outfit and riding crop, meant that as Dromio told his master to run into the house he was able to stare at the strange figure of the Abbess and say “This is *some* priory”. The word “some” here became an indication of the premise’s peculiarity rather than its randomness.
Once they were inside the others began beating on the door. All of the Abbess’ lines about Adriana’s need for strictness in dealing with her husband took on kinky overtones as she flexed her riding crop. This was particularly the case when she said: “Ay, but not rough enough”.
Adriana was determined to wait for the Duke and complain that the Abbess was detaining her husband. Five bells rang as the Merchant pointed out the time and that the Duke was due to pass by. They all gathered at the front of the stage. The Merchant said that the Duke was coming to see a “reverend Syracusan merchant” who had been condemned to death. The mention of “Syracusan” caused everyone to spit. As he was at the front of the group the Merchant got some on the back of his neck, which he was obliged to wipe off.
The Duke entered with Aegeon, who was bound by the hands and looking quite rough. Adriana made her long drawn out speech about the injustice done to her by the Abbess. The Duke listened but seemed more interested in checking out the Courtesan’s prodigious chest. He eventually asked someone to fetch the Abbess.
The messenger told of Antipholus and Dromio escaping from Pinch’s custody and how they had singed off his beard, which was indicated as being in the pubic region. True to this description Pinch suddenly ran naked across the stage with his hands positioned firmly to protect his modesty and with a lit sparkler sticking out his backside.
The Ephesan Antipholus and Dromio finally appeared. After another argument among those assembled about the day’s events, Antipholus outlined his version to the Duke. Dromio copied his increasingly exasperated gestures as his story unfolded.
Each mention of the chain produced another ding from the musician standing just to the side of the stage. In his frustration, Antipholus started to say “ding” each time the note chimed in. The Duke did the same when his mention of the chain produced the same sound.
The fact that the characters were rebelling at one of the production’s conventions indicated that events were coming to a head as this abnormal normality was being brought to a close.
The argument about the chain between Angelo, the Merchant and Antipholus became a generalised conflict and a massive fight broke out. After a few moments of chaos The Duke shouted “Why, what an intricate impeach is this”. Order was restored as the combatants froze in position. The Officer was holding someone poised against the front row of the audience and Luciana was mid-kick with her foot on someone’s neck.
Aegeon had a second attempt at talking to the Ephesans, but Antipholus and Dromio did not recognise him, having been brought up without knowing their real father.
The Abbess entered with the Syracusans to double-takes all round, especially from Adriana who saw two husbands. The Abbess’ claim to have gained a husband by Aegeon’s liberty looked comical given the difference between the old man’s bedraggled condition and her S&M outfit.
Luciana realised that her fancy, Antipholus of Syracuse, was now available and used a breath freshener to make herself ready. The chain and money were returned. The purse was given to Angelo, but then taken by the Merchant much to Angelo’s regret.
The final sequence with the two cheery Dromios leaving hand in hand was a touching end to a very enjoyable production.
This was Propeller at their best: completely mad and completely serious at the same time. We were assaulted by hallucinatory visions and then moments later treated to thoughtful, explanatory stagings of passages in the text that less madcap productions gloss over without making their meaning plain.
Having been slightly disappointed by their Richard III, I’m now really pleased that I’ve booked to see the Hampstead Theatre run of Propeller’s current season in late June.
Richard III, Watermill Theatre Newbury, 21 April 2011
Propeller have always brought a pantomime element into their work. The all-male company’s USP of having men play female characters infuses their productions with a subversive comedic touch.
This undercurrent of comedy in their work burst to the surface and dominated their production of Richard III so that the violence was played for laughs.
This was the inevitable result of cross infection from the work they were doing on the second play in their season, The Comedy of Errors.
The set had a central discovery area covered with a plastic door curtain with two entrances either side. Two thin lattice towers stood at each side near the front and a flag pole with an England flag at its base was placed stage right behind one of the towers. Stage left sat a partly folded operating table. The floor was spotted with black spots reminiscent of congealed blood.
As people took their seats, the actors gradually appeared silently on stage clothed in white coats and wearing face masks leaving only their eyes visible. They carried surgical instruments in keeping with the vaguely field hospital theme of the set.
The cast scanned the auditorium with their beady eyes. This was intended to be menacing, but they were mostly ignored by the chatty audience.
The performance began with a chanted hymn as the England flag was raised. One of the actors stood centre stage in a white coat and, holding a large metal syringe aloft, flicked his finger at its invisible needle.
Enter Richard. The actor Richard Clothier is quite tall and he cut quite an imposing figure in his black leather outfit with integral hump. His right leg was in a calliper but he did not limp excessively. Deformity was chiefly indicated by his left arm stump which had a handy slot for attachments (mostly knives).
He looked like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner but sounded more like Antony Head’s character Mr Gently Benevolent in Radio 4’s Bleak Expectations. This was pantomime villainy, extending later as far as a “muwha-ha-ha” laugh.
Richard began his soliloquy. There was even a nice bright light to cast a shadow enabling him to descant on his own deformity. The speech continued as far as line 31 after which we saw an interpolated party scene with King Edward and others including Clarence partying.
A camera tripod was placed in front of the revellers. The flash lit and the action froze as Richard entered and continued his speech about plots and “inductions dangerous”. He took a cigar from Clarence’s frozen hand, smoked it and flicked ash into Clarence’s wine glass before replacing the cigar in his grip.
The action unfroze and the scene continued. Clarence took a drink from his glass and began coughing. Richard stood next to Edward and whispered to him drawing his attention to Clarence. While Edward looked fixedly at Clarence, Richard swiftly poured poison into his glass.
After a brief absence, Edward returned and was sick into a bucket, indicating his failing health, which was then commented on as the action continued with scene 1.3.
Given the prominence of the female characters in Richard III, it was inherently interesting to see them portrayed by male actors. Tony Bell’s Queen Margaret was the stand-out performance of the afternoon. He managed to convey Margaret’s bitter resentment but also her innate dignity.
Richard, on the other hand, was anything but dignified. When accusing Margaret of glorying in the death of Rutland, he produced the “bloody clout” she had offered as a gruesome memento, and waved it in her face as a reminder of her own past misdeeds.
Margaret responded by cutting her hand with a knife and dripping blood into a bowl, which she then sprinkled on the recipients of her curses. Each curse was accompanied by metallic clangs as white-coated assistants banged their clubs on the scaffolding.
Ordering the text this way introduced us to the principal characters and background evens before continuing with the detail of Richard’s intrigues.
The action then reverted back to 1.1. We saw Clarence being escorted to the Tower, after which he was blinded with acid in the discovery space. The power of the acid was demonstrated by one of the torturers spilling a few drops on the ground to a loud hissing noise generated offstage.
Anne conveyed the body of Henry VI in one of the production’s trademark body bags, many more of which appeared later. Richard loped into view as she opened it to look at Henry’s bloody body.
Richard produced a bouquet of artificial flowers from inside his stump. This did more than anything else to underline the comic nature of the production.
Jon Trenchard’s Anne was tiny compared to Richard, which meant that his wooing of her was more physical overpowering than persuasion. Anne was, however, incapable of acting on his suggestion that she stab him with his dagger.
He forced a ring onto her finger. She studied it admiringly before stuttering out “To take is not to give” as an almost nonsensical excuse for her surrender. Richard then leant her back over the body bag in a final gesture of seductive triumph.
Richard gave orders for Henry’s corpse to be brought to his house in London causing the attendants to smile and laugh. They had clearly understood the implications of Richard assuming control of the situation.
He seemed quite pleased with his success and looked forward to commissioning tailors. He also commissioned murders to kill his brother Clarence, a sequence held over from the end of 1.3 which was acted earlier.
Continuing with 1.4 we saw the blinded Clarence in his cell recounting his dream. The murderers were played like two music hall comedians. The humour inherent in their jokey, inverted moral debate and their determination to resist the temptation to show mercy became a self-consciously stylised performance with them tipping their hats off and on.
When preparing to execute Clarence, one held him still while the other cued up a club and prepared to knock his head clean off his shoulders, taking very large back swings and then bringing the club forward slowly to the point of impact, checking his swing like a golfer.
The fact that Clarence was blind and could not see any of this made it funnier. But his blindness also cemented a neat analogy with another famous scene in Shakespeare. Clarence told the murderers to seek out Richard, confident that his brother would help. But the murderers took great delight in telling him “’Tis he that sends us to destroy you here.”
With Clarence blind, this moment was thus an exact parallel of the scene in Lear where the sightless Gloucester calls on his son Edmund to help him, only to be told to his dismay that Edmund was in fact his betrayer.
After the pair stabbed Clarence and then pierced through his eye socket with a drill, the 2nd Murderer expressed his repentance at the deed just as Richard entered. On hearing this disobedience, Richard killed the 2nd Murderer instantly and also after a short delay his more willing companion.
There was an awful lot of blood in this production. In the pause before the start of 2.1 the principal characters in the scene formed a line at the front of the stage and each bared a forearm.
There was a moment of comedy here as each person used their free hand to tap their arms to stimulate the flow of blood to the surface, something which Richard, with his stump, was unable to do. He muttered under his breath at the others.
A medical orderly used a large syringe to extract blood from each arm, squirting its load into individual vials that the characters then carried round with them like cocktails at a diplomatic reception.
Edward appeared ill, as required by the stage directions. And because we had seen his behaviour earlier, we could understand why.
As words of reconciliation were exchanged, the characters stood in pairs, swapped vials and drank each other’s blood. This gave new meaning to 2.1.41 where King Edward referred to the vow offered to him as “a pleasing cordial”.
Richard was cringeworthy in his fake sincerity, but there was too much of the Gently Benevolent about him. He became more interesting when, after telling Edward that the countermand had come too late to save Clarence, he brought in the body bag containing his brother’s corpse and dumped it on the ground. Edward took off his crown, placing it on the bag as he examined the body. When Edward’s back was turned, Richard’s hand glided towards the crown as if magnetically attracted to it, but withdrew when Edward’s attention refocused.
As a parting gesture, Richard gave Clarence’s body bag a swift kick as he passed by on the way out.
Another interpolated scene showed Edward’s death. He was simply wheeled into the centre of the stage on the operating table. Then he shot a jet of blood high into the air like some curious Plantagenet sperm whale and expired.
This was another instance where the blood and guts were played for laughs. Though to be fair it must have taken some practice to ensure that Edward’s spout was sufficiently spectacular.
It meant, however, that the following sequence in which no one died lacked comparative impact.
Queen Elizabeth lamented and the Duchess, Richard’s mother, offered him her blessing. But he only mocked her.
The scene picked up when Buckingham suggested cryptically to Richard that the princes should be murdered. Richard’s effusive praise for his “other self” and his “counsel’s consistory” and Buckingham’s beaming pride to have Richard’s favour was a great conspiratorial flourish that ended with some demonic laughter from the Duke.
Scene 2.3 was skipped, although one of its lines were used later. In 2.4 we saw the first of the puppet princes. They consisted of the head and torso of shop window dummy children with voices provided by the puppeteers.
York was put to bed by his mother, Queen Elizabeth. She and the Duchess planned to save the prince on hearing of the imprisonment of Rivers. Grey and Vaughan were not portrayed at all in this cut-down production.
The puppet Prince Edward appeared at the start of act three. Richard put a crown on Edward’s head and blew a party blower very loudly at him causing him to cry, whereupon Richard remarked that it must have been the “weary way” that had made him melancholy.
The sequence in which York was fetched was cut, so when York appeared the action continued with the two princes teasing each other.
Richard had fixed a dagger into the slot on his arm stump creating an immediate air of menace towards the princes, much more so than the simple wearing of a dagger on a belt might have done. When Edward asked for the dagger and Richard promised it with all his heart, the fact that it was pointing at Edward was particularly galling.
The little prince looked scared at the mention of the Tower, indicated as being within the discovery space, and began shaking.
Catesby was sent to sound out Hastings’ willingness to back Richard’s usurpation of the crown, which Hastings refused to do in 3.2.
The killing of Rivers was actually staged in 3.3. Ratcliffe looked at his ticking watch until it stopped before pronouncing that the limit of Rivers’ life was out. He was thrust into a body bag and taken out the back so that the bag could be swapped for a stuffed one. This bag was then dragged centre stage and beaten remorselessly with clubs.
Richard made another dynamic entrance in 3.4 and his request that the Bishop fetch some of his strawberries leant a kind of easiness to his dominance of the situation.
For a few dollars more
Hastings, however, fatally misinterpreted Richard’s mood and once again Ratcliffe’s ticking watch was out. When it stopped Hastings was taken into the discovery space while a chainsaw was revved up. As Hastings screamed in agony, jets of blood spurted against the transparent door curtain. I sat and silently applauded the audacity of this gruesome staging.
Richard sat outside the discovery space impassively while this was going on. Once finished, the action skipped straight to the end of 3.5 with Richard instructing Buckingham to spread rumours about the illegitimacy of Edward’s children.
A body bag with bits of Hastings was dumped outside and the crown presented on a stool to Richard who grinned in triumph. Then the interval came.
At the start of the second half the chainsaw that had been used to cut up Hasting was positioned centre stage, where it remained while the Scrivener (in 3.6) described the moral dilemma of working on Richard’s indictment of Hastings.
A vaguely punkish song about London was used to introduce the scene (3.7) with the Mayor and the populace. Entitled the “Scrivener’s Rap” there was not actually any rapping involved.
Buckingham climbed the stage right tower in order to address the people. Some were impressed, but one of them ran amok shouting a line borrowed from 2.3 “O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester” whereupon Richard knocked him on the head with his metal stump, killing him.
Richard was revealed behind the discovery space at one point kneeling and praying and then in a second instance being beaten with a branch as a pious flagellant.
Buckingham encouraged Richard to accept the crown, allowing us to appreciate Richard’s fake piety and abhorrence of swearing. At this point the onstage chainsaw came into its own as Richard, in the full flow of his protestations of holiness, made an audible “oops!” as he saw the murder weapon and hastily hid it away.
Scene 4.1 was cut so the action continued with 4.2. Richard’s entry for his coronation was made hand-in-hand with Anne. The pair emerged from the discovery space and stepped over a mound of body bags. This was a rather heavy-handed visual metaphor for the brutal nature of Richard’s rise to power.
Richard snatched the proffered crown from the Archbishop and crowned himself in true tyrannical fashion. But was soon wishing the young prince dead to secure his hold on it.
Having ordered Catesby to spread rumours of his wife Anne’s sickness, Richard grabbed hold of her, smothered her close to his chest and then broke her neck whilst coolly stating “I must be married to my brother’s daughter”.
He tried to remove the wedding ring from her cold, dead finger. This was a bit of a struggle for a man with just the one hand. He turned his back to the audience taking Anne’s limp corpse with him and after a few seconds turned back again having bit her ring finger from her hand. The ring itself was then sucked from the finger, the severed limb spat unceremoniously to the ground.
The murderer Tyrrel cut a strange figure. A transparent mask covered his entire face and his words were spoken by another character. Richard instructed him to kill the princes, giving him a small teddy bear as the token that would allow him entry.
Buckingham’s insistence on Richard fulfilling his earlier promise to grant him the earldom of Hereford was soundly ignored by the king, who was obsessing about the threat from Richmond. This culminated in Richard speaking slowly and loudly into Buckingham’s ear the dismissive “I am not in the vein.”
Tyrrel did not speak his post-murder soliloquy in 4.3. Ratcliffe spoke on his behalf to report the job done, upon which Richard killed Tyrrel. A chorus of singing slowed to a stop as Tyrrel fell, but then took up again as the murdered murderer rose and walked off much to Richard’s surprise. The scene ended with news of more people lending their support to Richmond.
Queen Margaret brought out a specimen jar containing the preserved dummy heads of the two princes and placed it centre stage in 4.4. This spectacle matched the poetic horror of her first two lines “So now prosperity begins to mellow and drop into the rotten mouth of death”.
This subtle, thoughtful illustration of Richard’s brutality was more effective than the buckets of stage blood deployed elsewhere in the production. As so often, less can sometimes mean more.
The three women bewailing their sorry fates could have been the dramatic centre of a quieter and less blood-splattered production. But as it was, this deployment of Propeller’s all-male cast in female roles seemed like a downplayed interlude among the spectacular killings.
The incantatory exchanges between Margaret, the Duchess and Elizabeth were effective. The women interrupted Richard’s progress causing him to order his musicians to drown out their cursing. In addition to a tabor, the production’s thematic surgical instruments were struck against the lattice towers to create a metallic clang.
This and other sequences in the production showed male actors playing female characters displaying anger. It was noticeable how the cast created the impression that the playing field was somehow evened up for having these female complaints expressed with a male level of power and aggression.
Richard’s lengthy badgering of Elizabeth to secure her daughter’s consent to be his bride saw some biting sarcasm from both sides. The stylish stichomythic sequence starting from 4.4.343 was a pleasure to watch, another instance where the play’s quieter, more subtle moments shone through the spectacle.
Richard grabbed her round the waist at 423-4 when talking of her daughter’s womb as “that nest of spicery”. When he had (apparently) secured Elizabeth’s consent he kissed her at 430 telling her to “Bear her my true love’s kiss”.
As more bad news of Richmond’s progress arrived, Richard pointed at the operating table throne and asked sarcastically if it were empty, which, technically at that moment, it was as no one was sitting on it.
With Stanley’s son George taken hostage to ensure his father’s loyalty, Catesby relayed the good news that Buckingham had been captured. He was brought in at the start of 5.1 and after his woeful farewell speech he was put onto the operating table in its upright configuration facing away from the audience and then eviscerated with a hook.
His guts were produced for display. This was at least historically accurate as a representation of the drawing stage in hanging, drawing and quartering.
Richmond appeared in 5.2 dressed all in white to remind us that he was a good guy. He pensively clutched a crucifix in another representation of his virtue.
The stage was prepared for the dream scene by bringing in hospital screens to form a semicircle about six feet from the front row of seats enclosing the table. Richard entered to order his tent pitched, whereupon the screens were moved round to the front of the stage. Once they had circled back to position again, Richmond was sat on the table. This was repeated a couple of times to mark the change between tents.
As the dream itself began, the screens were removed completely to reveal Richard and Richmond sat at opposite ends of the table. The ghosts of Richard’s victims entered and as each progressed from cursing Richard to blessing Richmond, the following ghost entered to curse Richard so that curses and blessings overlapped.
It was particularly powerful to have one character’s “despair and die” intersect with the preceding character’s “live and flourish”. This was one of the production’s moving pieces of direction.
The puppet princes were touching to watch and Buckingham carried his eviscerated guts in front of him. At the end Richmond exited leaving Richard alone to wake from his dream and debate its meaning with himself.
Richmond’s oration to his troops was delivered from the gallery at the top of the discovery space, while Richard gave his standing on the operating table which was wheeled right to the front of the stage, causing the king to tower over the first few rows of the audience. This neatly emphasised Richard’s domineering character.
After the battle, the end of which was heralded by Ratcliffe looking at his ticking watch, Richard was wheeled in bleeding sat upright on the table calling for a horse in 5.4. Richmond drew a revolver and shot him once. Then after pronouncing that the bloody dog was dead, he was presented with the crown. But not before Richard stirred once more causing Richmond to fire off a second, fatal shot.
There was so much good in this production, but it tended to be pushed into the background by the more amusing and visually diverting pieces of staging. Propeller is the only company that can give us a consistent all-male take on the canon and so it was somewhat disappointing that they chose to make this production into a bloody spectacular rather than exploit their unique selling point.
Review based on two views of the play: Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 12 November 2010 and Oval House Theatre, Kennington, 16 November 2010.
Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (The Madness of Hamlet) brought together some intriguing variations on conventional staging to create a unique and challenging theatrical experience.
The director Arne Pohlmeier had begun the project with a deliberate decision to use the First Quarto (Q1) text instead of the more familiar Second Quarto or Folio (Q2/F) versions of the play. Q1 is thought to be a memorial reconstruction, possibly of a shortened performance version of the play. The wording of many key speeches displays interesting variations from Q2/F. The Arden edition of Q1 describes it as “fast, plot-driven and far less ruminative than the other texts”.
All the characters were performed by just two actors wearing plain boiler suits. Many characters were played by both of them over the course of the performance. This required the two to coordinate their performances, the success of which was a testament to their close teamwork. Character was indicated by a combination of voice and standardised postures which could be adopted instantly. There was no set, and the only props were a wicker mat and a musical instrument called a mbira, a form of thumb piano housed in a gourd that also served as a cup.
The two actors were both from Zimbabwe and the narrative of the play was set within an African storytelling culture with elements of Shona custom. The Q1 text, described by Arden as “more of an ensemble piece, not a showcase for a single star player”, was complemented by this two-hander storytelling framework. They undertook a period of research in Zimbabwe, funded by the Arts Council, to ensure authenticity.
The Q1 text was itself rearranged to facilitate a two-hander performance, most notably at the end where the performance became a series of individual character stories.
These multiple dislocations from standard performance practice made the play feel almost like new writing.
If you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin…
After the house lights went down there was a long silence interrupted only by offstage singing in Shona. Two figures walked on to the stage, their heads bowed. They shook hands and commiserated with each other again in Shona.
They addressed the audience in English to explain that “It all started when the old king died and the queen married his brother” and then the phrase “the queen” was intoned. Tonderai Munyevu struck a pose, placing his right palm on his left cheek to become Gertred (Q1’s version of Gertrude).
A wicker mat was rolled out on the ground to represent the old king’s grave. The queen sat next to it in sorrow singing Hatina Musha, the traditional Zimbabwean funeral song. Denton Chikura, the other half of Two Gents Productions, knelt beside her, possibly representing the ghost of the dead king. He animated the queen’s hands so that she mimed sprinkling soil from the gourd on the grave.
The first scene of Q1 Hamlet, the initial encounter with the ghost, was skipped entirely. Our first taste of the text came when Tonderai changed from the queen to become the new king. To do this he adopted an upright masculine posture with his arms at his sides held palm upwards as if supporting a heavy weight level with his head.
In their previous two-hander production, Vakomana Vavire Ve Zimbabwe (The Two Gentlemen of Zimbabwe) Denton and Tonderai had used props and costume to indicate character, which was awkward and slow. Their use of posture and voice here was much simpler and made character transitions fast and effective.
The king’s posture seemed to emphasise his royal magnificence as he began “Lords, we have here writ to Fortenbrasse…”. Leartes and Corambis (Q1’s Polonius) were cut from this scene so that we went straight into the king’s request to Hamlet not to return to Wittenberg. The “sable suit” lines were cut.
Denton, who played Hamlet throughout most of the performance, stood and listened eventually agreeing to the request.
Hamlet’s first soliloquy began, referring to his “grieved and sallied flesh”. This was our first real taste of the Q1 effect. The difference in phrasing tickled the brain and required that attention be paid to the words and their precise meaning. There was no satisfaction to be had from the mere recognition of a familiar set of words.
The scene continued to the end with Tonderai’s Horatio explaining to Hamlet about the appearance of his father’s ghost. For obvious reasons, the part of Marcellus was cut throughout.
Enter Ofelia (with an ‘f’)
Scene three began with Denton transforming himself slowly into Ofelia. As the audience had just seen him as Hamlet, this transition required a gradual feminising of his posture. A note of humour was provided by a series of hand gestures indicating the popping up of breasts. He helped the audience by announcing Ofelia’s name. Her character was presented as sexual and comedic. Tonderai as Leartes (Q1 spelling) took the mat from the ground and rolled it up to represent his “necessaries”.
Denton changed from Ofelia into Corambis by frowning and stooping with his hands behind his back. He looked at the audience and announced “I am Corambis, also known as Polonius. We’re doing the First Quarto. We’ve learnt our lines”. As well as explaining who Corambis was, this alerted anyone who had not read the programme or promotional material that the text was going to be different, but based nevertheless on an actual printed edition.
He told Leartes to get going, but the “precepts” speech was cut.
Denton’s Corambis seemed to stumble over his lines when talking of Ofelia’s “maiden presence”. As the subsequent scene with Montano (Reynaldo) with its memory lapse was cut, this seemed to be a good opportunity to give Corambis a compensatory senior moment
Ofelia presented her father with the letter Hamlet had written to her by slapping her hand on his as if forcefully transferring it. She was slightly indignant and feisty in response to her father’s requests to shun Hamlet, prompting Corambis to mutter “Attitude!” in reply.
Hamlet and Horatio went to catch sight of the ghost in scenes 4 and 5. After Denton’s Hamlet described the “eager and a nipping wind”, Tonderai’s Horatio crouched on the ground. He transformed into the ghost by stretching out his hand, clenching it into a fist and spitting on it. He began to sing a song in Shona. Hamlet, playing music on a traditional Zimbabwean instrument called a mbira, recognised the song and joined in. He clapped his hands on the ground to welcome and show respect for his father in the traditional Zimbabwean custom.
This joyous reunion replaced the fearful “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” of the text. The close relationship between the worlds of the living and dead in the play was thereby emphasised.
Murder in the highest degree
The ghost explained “I am thy father’s spirit” but the prison-house references and general Christian context were cut. The dead king told Hamlet that he had been murdered by his brother and exhorted his son to revenge, but without giving precise details of the manner of his death.
The ghost remained present and was directly addressed by Hamlet when he talked about wiping trivial matters from the tables of his memory. This was contrary to the text where the ghost is absent at this point.
Hamlet asked Horatio (Marcellus again absent) to remain silent about these events, but the swearing on Hamlet’s sword sequence and ghostly voice were cut. The scene ended on the “cursed spite” couplet.
The Montano (Q1’s version of Reynaldo) sequence was cut from scene six. It began with Ofelia bursting in with her account of Hamlet’s madness. The short scene was played in its entirety with the characters walking to the downstage edge of the stage and pausing to indicate their onward progress to tell the king about Hamlet. Both actors then changed posture in readiness for the start of the next scene.
Rossencraft and Gilderstone (Q1 spellings) were introduced by name and described as witchdoctors. They whooped, shook their hands and shrieked extravagantly before appearing to hunt and kill something represented on stage by the rolled up wicker mat. Having pounced on it, one of them proceeded to cut out its heart and then crouch holding the invisible organ aloft. The other stood upright immediately behind representing the king, who announced that Hamlet had lost “the heart of all his sense”.
This matching of mime to the text was very pleasing to watch.
When the queen corrected the king’s ordering of Rossencraft and Gilderstone’s names, he replied with a desultory “Yes boss”. The return of the ambassadors was cut. The action continued with Denton’s Corambis explaining the nature of Hamlet’s madness. There was much laughter at his play on the words “effect” and “defect”. He delivered the letter that had been slapped into his hand by Ofelia by slapping the invisible missive into the king’s hand, but the letter was not read aloud.
What did he say?
As per the Q1 ordering of events, we moved straight into “To be or not to be”. Denton’s delivery of the first line of the soliloquy was calculated to maximise the impact of the textual variation.
He spoke the words “To be or not to be” looking directly at the audience and then paused. “Aye”, he continued, then paused again before delivering what felt like a punch line: “there’s the point”. Q1’s most famous textual variation was in effect drip fed into the audience’s consciousness lest anyone should miss it.
The audience at the Watermill, with many students present, laughed at his line thinking it was a jocular continuation of some comic business that had just taken place. In London, however, the audience greeted this bombshell in silence.
If the Q1 version of the speech were not enough, Ofelia then held Hamlet’s hand over her stomach to indicate that the “small remembrance” he had left her was an unborn child. Hamlet’s kept his hand on her stomach while rejecting her very tenderly without a trace of anger. This was quite an original take on the lines. Only the sight of the couple locked together physically and emotionally was able to carry the moment beyond its apparent absurdity.
This demonstrated that the power of the visual staging could rewrite our understanding of the bare sense of the text.
Tonderai, who had been playing Ofelia, changed into the king to express disbelief at the idea Hamlet was in love. The fishmonger sequence with Corambis was cut. Next came Tonderai acting as both Rossencraft and Gilderstone trying to butter up Denton’s Hamlet.
When the players were mentioned, Denton corrected Tonderai’s mispronunciation of “tragedians”. The boy actor references were cut, so that we next saw Tonderai change into Corambis to recite the list of acting styles in which the players excelled. At this point the house lights went up.
It became clear that we the audience were the players and Denton’s Hamlet addressed individual audience members representing the players he greeted. He asked someone in the audience to deliver a brief speech. At the Watermill this request was met with silence, but in London someone actually repeated the Shona words with which Denton prompted him. Tonderai interrupted saying that he had better do this as the other person’s words were not coming trippingly off his tongue.
Tonderai became one of the players and turned to the audience, asking us to respond to his word “Kwaivepo!” (roughly “Once upon a time”) with “Dzepfunde” (roughly “We agree”). He repeated this several times with the audience duly responding, before launching into a passionate Shona version of Q1’s Hecuba speech.
This placed the Hecuba speech firmly within the context of Shona storytelling as we became complicit in the conventions of that tradition. Tonderai spoke in Shona with appropriate gestures illustrating the action. Corambis’ interruptions were excluded to maintain the flow.
At the end of the Hecuba sequence, Hamlet did not address the players to ask them to insert some topical lines. He went straight into his soliloquy, which in Q1 has Hamlet describe himself as a “dunghill idiot slave”. Denton faced the audience with one hand on Tonderai’s shoulder: his fellow actor remained turned away from us, indicating that his character was still gripped in the passion of his portrayal of Hecuba. This simple physical connection underlined the admiration that Hamlet had for the player’s skill.
Scene eight was performed in its entirety. Denton and Tonderai quickly morphed between the king/queen/Corambis/Rossencraft/Gilderstone with a fluidity that was wonderful to behold. The extremity of each characterisation made each of them perfectly distinct.
This scene like many of the others demonstrated the power of the two hander format. As only two people were on stage at any time and usually quite close together, the audience’s attention had a single focus with no distractions caused by entries and exits of other performers.
The Mousetrap sequence in scene nine omitted Hamlet’s advice to the players, although as previously mentioned this was alluded to at Oval House by Tonderai. The scene began with Hamlet telling Horatio about the lines he had caused to be inserted to discomfort the king.
Denton played on the mbira while Tonderai plucked four people from the audience to form the royal party of king, queen, Ofelia and Corambis watching the Mousetrap. Each was instructed to adopt that character’s distinctive posture . At the Oval House I was sat in the front row and became Corambis.
Once the royal party was in position Tonderai lay on the mat to symbolise the old king and Denton acted out his murder. Denton got up and returned to play on the mbira, while Tonderai’s Hamlet went round the royal party accusing each of them in turn by staring at them and then at the mat grave.
Getting to ‘yes’
When he reached the king, he made a point of indicating the grave and mimed his demand for a response. On both occasions I saw this happen, the man holding his arms up like the king shook his head from side to side in denial, only for Tonderai to grasp his head and force it to nod up and down in agreement.
Each audience member was instructed individually to get off the stage by Tonderai in a barking voice. The seated audience applauded and Denton joined in to extend his congratulations.
The text of this sequence therefore skipped straight to Hamlet raging at the king for being “frighted with false fires”. The king took on Rossencraft and Gilderstone’s lines and responded to Hamlet’s accusation of trying to play him like a pipe. Hamlet held up his thumb to represent the instrument. This made the sequence all about Hamlet’s continuing argument with the king rather than a confrontation with his friends. The joking with Corambis about clouds shaped liked camels and weasels was cut.
Scene ten merged seamlessly into this as the king spoke about his crimes directly to Hamlet, not as soliloquy. This continued the tense face-to-face engagement that had begun at the end of the Mousetrap. Hamlet told the king directly that he wanted to kill him. The king was also party to Hamlet’s realisation that this would be “a benefit and not revenge”.
The conflict between Hamlet and his mother in scene eleven proved to be one of the most engaging of all the sequences in the production. Tonderai portrayed the queen with his right hand on his left cheek, holding the unfolded wicker mat aloft in his other hand to represent the arras. Denton briefly assumed the role of Corambis to indicate he would hide behind the arras before switching into Hamlet to confront Gertred.
After pursuing his mother across the stage and back, Denton’s Hamlet watched as Tonderai turned around to hide behind the mat. Hamlet then snatched the mat away to reveal Tonderai stooping to represent Corambis, before dashing the mat to the ground. The swiping and casting down of the mat represented the killing of the old man. Tonderai resumed the part of the queen, continuing the argument with Hamlet.
Hamlet made the comparison between the old king and his brother by pointing to himself as “the portraiture of your deceased husband”. This neat, economical piece of staging exemplified how the discipline of virtually prop-free two-handed production could produce fresh and engaging effects and insights into the play. Her current husband was indicated by staring at an unseen, offstage picture, possibly one on the wall of the queen’s chamber.
Live long and prosper
In an annoying departure from the Q1 text, on both occasions I saw the production Denton talked of Gertred’s current husband having a “face like *a* Vulcan”. This appeared to be an unintended Star Trek reference that made no real sense.
For the second appearance of the ghost, Tonderai assumed the posture of the dead king by crouching on the ground and spitting on his outstretched fist. He began to sing a song in Shona. Hamlet recognised the song and joined in singing. At the Watermill performance Denton crouched and clapped his hands near the ground and repeatedly responded ‘yea papa’ to the ghost’s reminder.
The production included the unique Q1 feature of this scene that has the queen promise to assist Hamlet in his plans. Content with his mother’s response, Hamlet cradled the mat representing the dead Corambis in his arms and carried it off. He unfurled the mat at the side of the stage and lay down on the ground, possibly representing the dead old man.
The entry of the king together with Rossencraft and Gilderstone was cut, as was the king’s conversation with the queen ending with the announcement of Hamlet’s dispatch to England. Hamlet’s irreverent speech about Corambis being eaten by worms was also cut.
Denton rose from the ground and was told by Tonderai’s king that he was to be shipped to England to which Hamlet simply replied “For England, ho!” with no riposte about man and wife being one flesh.
The brief scene twelve containing Fortenbrasse’s five lines about marching his army through Denmark was cut.
From this point on the order of events and their staging began to change from that in Q1 or any of the Hamlet texts. Although the production’s education pack indicated that this rearrangement was motivated by the perceived comedy of the multiple deaths, I think that practical staging considerations must have played a part in the final format of the production.
Just as the complexity of the Mousetrap scene made it impossible to perform with just two actors, so the final fencing match scene with its full complement of characters and rapid sequence of deaths would have proved a problem for a production with just two actors.
The chosen option was to isolate individual characters and treat their destinies individually. This enabled the platter of dead bodies at the end to be created in an orderly fashion with just two performers to tell their respective stories.
Some additions to the text were required to make this work. Given the immensity of the task of actually adding significant sequences to Shakespeare, there was a tendency to go in the opposite direction to the tragedy of the story and to inject an element of humour.
Kupenga Kwa Ofelia
Tonderai played Ofelia in a version of scene thirteen that was reduced to her singing her three songs of madness one after the other in a mood of increasing desperation. Tonderai, being male, was able to adopt a gruff masculine voice for the part of young man making his excuses for not marrying the maid. As this was just Ofelia in isolation, she did not engage with any other characters and did not make gifts of flowers.
Denton and Tonderai then introduced themselves as Leartes back from France and Hamlet back from England. They crouched next to each other facing the audience. Leartes talked of his grief at his father being murdered and at finding his “sister thus distracted”.
The production skipped forward to scene sixteen where Hamlet challenged Leartes to “drink up vessels” and “eat a crocodile”, both of them still crouched in the same positions creating a continuity of action. Tonderai sprang up from his crouched position to the front of the stage and adopted his majestic posture representing the king. He explained the wager involving “venies”, the “keen rapier” and the poisoned “potion” from scene fifteen, words in that scene spoken to Leartes.
The production moved forward to scene seventeen with Hamlet making up with Leartes before the fencing match. They turned to face each other and crouched on the ground again, each grappling the other’s outstretched arm in a form of arm wrestling. One of them withdrew their hand from the struggle indicating a “hit”.
This was an interesting sequence that kept the staging static with the dialogue ranging across the text unified by theme.
Denton and Tonderai rose to become the two figures seen right at the start of the performance. They shook hands and lamented, telling the audience of the deaths that had occurred so far in the performance. This included the detail that Ofelia and her unborn child had died. They said they would explain how everything came to pass, starting with the queen.
The performance continued with scene fourteen in which Horatio told the queen that Hamlet had returned from England. This was left uncut. The part of scene fifteen with the king and Leartes plotting Hamlet’s death had already been dealt with and the queen’s news of Ofelia’s death was rendered unnecessary by the previous action.
The gravediggers returned with a mat representing the grave meant for Ofelia. Their only dialogue was the joke in scene sixteen about the mason, carpenter and “grave-maker”. They followed this by singing the song “Kupenga Kwa Hamlet” in Shona while engaging in an energetic dance with movements that indicated the digging a grave. This led into the final sequence in which some comic dialogue preceded the moment of death of the remaining key characters.
Poison in jest
They placed the mat on the ground and Tonderai came forward to introduce himself as the queen’s friend Constance, a computer student. Constance explained that the queen had been a battered wife and drank poison to escape being abused by her husband. Denton then spoke the king’s line’s warning her not to drink from the poisoned cup but she continued draining down the liquid. She died and laid on the mat.
Denton began singing the theme song and the prone Tonderai joined in as he rose from the ground. Together they raised the mat representing the queen’s grave and repositioned it elsewhere on the stage.
Another character was introduced to us: a rugby playing friend of Leartes who explained how Leartes had been troubled by Hamlet killing his father and causing his sister to kill herself and her unborn child. We were told that Leartes had tried to sort Hamlet out but he was not very strong, he was from Berkshire/Camberwell (this varied for each venue). The action cut straight to Leartes wounded by the foil saying “Even as a coxcomb should: foolishly slain with my own weapon.” He died, and after a pause the song resumed as both actors rose and repositioned the mat for the next death.
Tonderai became a friend of the king, bragging to us about how he was in with the “upper ekkelons” of society attending their picnics and eating cucumber sandwiches with no crusts. He told us that the king had experienced problems with Hamlet. Tonderai’s character had suggested that he poison Hamlet by putting weedkiller in his tea. This speech was interrupted as Denton’s Hamlet grabbed Tonderai, now representing the king, from behind and dispatched him with the Q1 words “Then venom to thy venom – die damned villain! Come, drink – here lies thy union, here!”
Another song and repositioning of the mat followed, after which we were then told by Tonderai (presumably as Horatio) that Hamlet had simply got dizzy by being surrounded by death. He had chosen his own grave. Denton lay down on the mat and announced his death to Horatio without the lines about Horatio’s attempt at joining him in death. He expired with “Heaven receive my soul”.
At the curtain call Denton and Tonderai bowed and worked through the various character poses they had adopted during the performance so that each character got his or her own applause.
Dislocation, dislocation, dislocation
The overall effect of this production was to leave the viewer with a sense of having been exposed to new possibilities within the play that had been released as a result of reconfiguring a bootleg version of the text.
As the Arden edition of Q1 points out, the choice of this text for performance provides companies with “the chance to do something different and surprising” creating a sense that “everything is at once familiar and oddly alien”. Once this dislocation from expectation had been introduced it made perfect sense to increase the level of dislocation by adding other features such as two-handed performance and an African cultural context. What Q1 had begun, the other features of the production enhanced.
Taken beyond its normal bounds, the play presented us with a pregnant Ofelia. This was certainly a daring innovation whose audacity was made to work and brought a whole new dynamic to her relationship with Hamlet.
What we did lose was any sense of character arc. But is it justified to complain about this when the chosen storytelling format made it plain that there was going to be no attempt to present the characters in those terms? Denton Chikura, a performer with no formal training as an actor, mentioned at the Newbury post-show discussion that he had no intention of convincing an audience he was Hamlet and gave the impression that he regarded any attempt to do so as somehow fake.
The production was probably best appreciated by people familiar with and slightly bored by standard versions of Hamlet who were hankering after something fresh and original.
The transgressive ‘bootleg’ version of the text proved to be a permissive environment that fully licensed the additional reworking of the play and its cultural relocation.
The production was in essence a celebration of the possibilities of theatre rather than just another attempt at offloading a new set of character psychologies and cute contemporary references.