Friday, 11 September 2009

T4YP's Hamlet: The Play's the Thing!

When it comes to plays, there are two opposite ways of approaching the (printed) source material before watching the performance. (My gut-feel is that most of the audience will take the middle road between the two.)

First there is the "ignore-it-completely" approach, where the viewer self-imposes tabula rasa before viewing, enjoying the story as it enfolds without expecting any of its twists or punch lines. Most new plays necessitate this approach because they would not be published yet, and since they are written for modern audiences, there is usually no need to go through the script to grasp the performance anyway.

On the other end is the "I-must-know-everything" approach, where the play is read (and re-read), deconstructed, dissected and then reconstructed, with every subtext, nuance, undertone and stage direction carefully studied. Background material is thoroughly researched and some go so far as to view a recorded performance or movie version. This approach clearly takes effort, and is more suited to (and needed for) plays which are decidedly complex and multilayered, and what body of dramatic literature can be considered more complex and multilayered than Shakespeare's plays? Further, within that body, which play can claim to be more complex and multilayered than Hamlet? Arguably, none.

A viewing of the play, be it performed by a collegiate am-dram club or a West End all-star ensemble, necessitates at least a prior familiarisation with the plot, more so than many of Shakespeare's other works, because it is complex both in terms of plot and language. Yet, even with this done, every new staging of Hamlet surprises because the play is almost always rearranged and edited to cut down on its full length of four hours.

Thus, as I watched TY4P's (Theatre for Young People) version at KLPAC's cozy Pentas Dua last night, I was driven to see how director Christopher Ling and his young ensemble would tell the tale, and I was not disappointed. The script was brisk and had a cut-and-paste feel, with earlier lines snipped and tucked into other scenes to good effect. The aesthetic was minimalistic, slick and dark (think lots of black and very few props), and as Pentas Dua is an intimate space, this proved a good decision—men in tights and brick fortifications would definitely have distracted more than enhanced the performances. Yet, I had the feeling that the starkness was due to a modest budget as much as it was a deliberate choice. This minimalism extended even to the cast, many who played multiple roles throughout.

Mr. Ling's no-frills approach had its shortcomings, however. The audience sat on both sides of the stage (the floor) and there was no clear backstage. The cast sat on a long pew on one side of the stage with a blue backlight, and as the play started the actors ran to the stage and cut straight to the action—a clever touch to start the ball rolling. The problem started however, when the play progressed, as actors moved to the pew instead of exiting offstage. As I sat on the first row, this proved distracting when cast members moved about and shoes clacked, and I had to keep reminding myself "don't look there".

Nonetheless, I was pleased with the play's overall artistic direction which lent it an air of modern relevance, and I found the liberal use of haze particularly effective throughout. It accorded the show at different times a dream-like surreality, an eerie chill or an aura of melancholy (it also nicely definined Sazali Sim's lighting).

The cast itself was adequate but inconsistent—at times I struggled to hear the lines and at others I felt them too loud, and the timing was askew here and there. Izmir Husein as the tortured Prince of Denmark showed great potential (save for a little nervousness). In what is arguably Shakespeare's most difficult role, he did his best in bringing out Hamlet's anger at those around him (especially in the scenes where he brutally chastises his lover and mother), and at delivering the many (in)famously knotty soliloquies his character expounds. I was however more convinced by his feelings of weltschmerz, confusion, loneliness and apprehension rather than his growing madness or vengefulness. This Hamlet seemed to need more of a hug than a dagger. That's not to say it wasn't a good performance—merely that Izmir brought out those aspects of Hamlet best.

In fact I felt the whole play was stronger in its moments of vague melancholy and vacillation rather than those of death-induced anguish, present danger, or burning hate, but one must remember this is a difficult play to balance even for established thespians, let alone our young performers.

The play was saved from being humourless by wonderful moments of comic relief in Polonious's (Dinesh Kumar) verbosity and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's (Gregory Tze and Tung Jit Yang) jocularity. Rachel Henry's Ophelia was thankfully controlled rather than parodic, but the other leads (Nick Dorian and Nabihan Yacoob as the King and Queen, Nur Zakuan as Laertes), while delivering their lines well, didn't quite seem as scheming, greedy, worried, guilty, angry or murderous as their parts required, mainly because their youth worked against them (and in the case of Laertes—I'm really sorry but she's just too comel la).

Hamlet's emotional and linguistic scope is so broad that is proves endlessly challenging to stage, and I am glad that T4YP at least met the bull by the horns. That same scope also allows for multifarious interpretations, and maintains the play's popularity four centuries after the Bard wrote it. I for one will be looking forward to this cast performing it perhaps a decade later, and if their potential is developed, I'm sure I'll have to pay twenty times more for the ticket, but I'll do so more than willingly.

Photos courtesy of KLUE and Candid Photography.


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