Hamlet: Moment-to-moment magic

Janni Younge’s Hamlet is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. I was ready to be tired after an hour. Instead, I was leaning forward with my fist holding up my chin, nursing the quiet embers of my passion for live performance being fully reignited, again.

‘Why should I do Hamlet using puppetry?’, she asked. And Hamlet answered in multiple voices. It was the kind of performance that makes you sit still. In silence you hear the many parts of your own soul stretched to answer the questions that wrack Hamlet on stage. “To be or not to be” is not the question. One of Hamlet’s voices laughs when the famed line is uttered. No, it is not a question of being that Janni Younge breathes into ghostly life.

Younge’s answer to the question of directing Hamlet through puppetry is answered in the many ways each character spills and splits within the tragedy. Physical movement meets the poetry of puppets floating. The performers show us that each being, each character, is made up of contesting parts. Hamlet stages a fight with himself, at another point, steps out of himself to drag the puppet away from the tender enfolding touches of Ophelia.

These puppets blew an unending magical breath into the fire in my belly. They brought life to the mortal bodies moulding them as much as the puppeteers brought life to the puppets’ sculpted faces. After the show, I fell asleep clutching my phone in the dark of loadshedding. I was trying to read an essay of Younge’s on contemporary puppetry and its reimagining of life itself. Contemporary puppetry “can provoke unsettling and profound questions about the nature of our existence”, wrote Younge.

This is what Hamlet does. It asks a far more shattering question than “to be or not to be?”. It reveals Shakespeare’s anti-hero. Younge’s Hamlet asks us: what does it mean to act? To fulfill your purpose? To labour? To care? To perform onstage? To exist?

The tragedy asks us to decide for ourselves and not cast our responsibility to our ghosts. We may be haunted, but we are haunted because we are driven mad by not listening to our own calling, or purpose – whatever word you use for the reasons you have to act. Not to ask, “to be or not to be?”, but to fight with yourself until you come together again, claim agency.

Younge assembles the highest class of actors for Hamlet. The production features Mongiwekhaya Mthombeni and Siyamthanda Sinani manoeuvring the character of Hamlet. Andrew Buckland playing as Claudius, as well as other roles in the ensemble. And Beviol Swartz with Tshiamo Moretlwe giving playful delirium to Ophelia.

As an ensemble, the work is nearly faultless. Puppetry demands not only individual skill but a complete trust in the whole network of performers. How Younge allows each performer a moment of singular magic whilst holding the network in place is itself a nod to the puppet-designer and maker’s work as a director. The only questionable choice I held after being utterly enthralled, was the reason for which Younge made use of Xhosa as a decorative spattering during the celebratory first parts of the play only to forget about the existence of the language in the work’s context. Having witnessed John Kani’s Xhosa recitation of Shakespeare in Kunene and the King, and the stellar play with the act of translation, the ornamental inclusion was confusing.

©2022 The Critter. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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