Kupenga Kwa Hamlet – a two-handed African reworking of the official bootleg

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.

Story time

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.

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