Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet (Two Gents Productions) runs at Merrigong from March 5-9 2013. Also touring to Perth, Sydney and Canberra. Adapted and created by Denton Chikura, Tonderai Munyebvu, and Arne Pohlmeier. Directed by Arne Pohlmeier.
The stage is completely bare, apart from one small piece of fabric. Two actors enter, singing. From this nothingness, using nothing but their own abilities, they tell one of the most famous stories in the canon. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet is a wonderful piece of storytelling and an absolutely sublime piece of theatre. It is a performative triumph.

As readers of my blog will know, Hamlet and I have not been on good terms so far this year (have no idea what I’m talking about? read this). Kupenga Kwa Hamlet has totally changed my luck. This is how you approach a classic text in a new and innovative way. This is how you make an old story exciting, how you ignite its universality. This was more than a great play – this was great storytelling.

Kupenga Kwa Hamlet features only two actors, Denton Chikura and Tonderai Munyebvu. Between them, they play all the characters. This sounds confusing, and I was certainly apprehensive at first, but they pull off this Shona township version of Hamlet with such aplomb and ease that you almost forget that there are only two people on the stage. This is a perfect example of how less is more. Characters are defined by simple gestures, and there is never a single second where you are confused about who is playing whom. Claudius becomes Gertrude becomes Ophelia becomes Hamlet, and you never question it for a second. The transformations are almost magical (and occasionally, extremely funny). It is a triumph of both acting and directing. To tell a story this complex and layered with only two actors is remarkable.

This is a self-consciously theatrical production, the story of Hamlet effectively framed by the township style. Chikura and Monyebvu frequently break the fourth wall and offer commentary on the proceedings to the audience. This is not something I'm a a fan of normally, because I think a lot of people try to pull off this pseudo-Brechtian device without a good reason for it. This was not the case here. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet playfully engages with the performative layers of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and uses them to create an exhilaratingly new and alive piece of theatre. The house lights were left up for the whole performance. I actually thought this was a technical error at first, but soon realised my mistake. We, the audience, were part of the performance. I’m not talking audience participation so much (though there is a little bit of that), but audience inclusion. This is township style theatre, and we were the township. The show was being performed to a specific audience, and that audience was us. Despite the cavernous size of the IMB theatre, this show felt intimate, because the audience was part of it.

This is perhaps also why the story of Hamlet, so often told, felt so fresh and exciting. It was already a little unfamiliar: it uses the text from the first quarto (sometimes called the bad quarto), in which Polonius is called Corambis and many of the famous speeches are a little different. Kupenga Kwa Hamlet is a distillation of Hamlet rather than a faithful performance of it, but this serves more to make it accessible than to press some particular reading or agenda. The story emerges in the simplest things. In gestures, in expressions, in the most basic interactions between two actors, this complex play is performed, and performed brilliantly.

There is a certain celebratory feel about this show. I certainly felt like celebrating after I had seen it, because it is one of the clearest, most innovative, and most alive productions of Shakespeare I have ever seen. This is how you tell a story. This is how you make theatre – simply, honestly. It’s funny without being ridiculous, sad without being melodramatic, theatrical without being self-indulgent. The directing is incisive and clever, the acting inspired. It’s an affectionate rendition of a famous play, and its brilliance lies in its unapologetic simplicity. I absolutely adored it and if you have even the hint of an opportunity, you should see it.

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