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SCENE IT: HAMLET and the missing connect

Barbara Loots


That it takes great skill to envision and realise the puppets that form an integral part of the latest staging of HAMLET is undisputed. Janni Younge, a former director of Handspring Puppet Company, clearly is a master of her craft. That craft is on full display in HAMLET at the Baxter Theatre.

Seeing the papier-mâché sculptures step out on stage with the performers is a fascinating exercise. As is the magic of seeing them become one with their puppeteers as hands reach through to bring the puppet-movements to life. This fusion allows for a sense of tangible reality to seep through the fantasy: like watching Pinocchio become a real boy.

However, with this HAMLET it is in the telling of this Shakespearean tragedy that things fall short. The melancholy and cynical aspects of a bitter Hamlet can very easily translate to whiny teenage prince in an unlikable way, so one really has to work at establishing a sympathetic connection between the audience and the protagonist (one cannot really call him a hero) early on in the play to make you invest emotionally in the suffering he faces later – once that connection is there the intensity of it all can build naturally to hit that utterly tragic mark. That sadly did not happen for me with this Hamlet.

It was all very interesting to watch from a technical perspective and there were character study moments that grabbed my attention up to a point. The production just never made me care for Hamlet himself.

The rhythm of delivery that is so crucial to the presentation of the Bard’s words felt slightly off kilter, with the emphasis of the tragedy cadence not landing on the prominent words as far as the conveyance of meaning goes. That some of the actors are not always audible and your ears have to switch between the tone and style of multiple actors speaking for one puppet in an already wordy and heavy storyline is perhaps at the root of the disconnect experienced with the unfolding tale.

In part this may also be because this HAMLET suffers from the absence of an interval. As I overheard one audience member pointing out to a friend after the show, “Hamlet is never going to lift your spirit”, so it is an extremely daring ask to keep your audience captivated and captive in a theatre for over 90 minutes. Admittedly the lack of air circulation due to load shedding (and the knock on of generators) on the night we saw HAMLET did not work in its favour on this point either. After that one-hour mark you run the risk of losing an audiences interest.

The visual quality of the production is still of a high standard. The lighting by Lize-Marie van Rooyen, with sound design and original music by Daniel Eppel, does guide the tone and understanding of this production, adding to the mood of the tale: it drastically changes the form of the minimalist set between scenes.

Being a huge Hamlet appreciator I really wanted to find a strong impassioned link with the production: It just did not hit that “make me feel” Hamlet sweet spot. Going by the applause on opening night I could fathom that others did not experience the disconnect to the degree I did. This HAMLET will definitely come down to personal taste: As a visual performance work I would say give it a go, as a captivating Shakespeare I was not sold.

You have until 11 March 2023 to see this production of HAMLET with direction and puppetry design by Janni Younge at the Baxter Theatre. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.


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