By BRUCE DENNILL
NSA Festival Of The Arts 2020: Hip Hop Hamlet / Directed & adapted by Laine Butler & Johan Anker / Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
Any updating or re-imagining of a play as universally well-recognised as Hamlet is an ambitious undertaking in any context. Mounting such a production with a cast of teenagers, and throwing complex live hip hop music and large-scale choreography into the mix to boot, is so brave as to seem foolhardy.
And yet, from the off – the piece opens with a tight, fast-paced duet setting up the storyline, melding Shakespeare’s words with hip hop lingo in a way that immediately pushes the concept past mere novelty and into serious drama. There are other immediately evident subversions relative to form, with women playing men’s roles – Hamlet “himself” is personified by the excellent Olerato Angela Motsoane – where the opposite was often true in the playwright’s time (and remains a part of this production in Lesedi Masheane’s portrayal of Gertrude).
The tweaked tale is now about high-level corporate and boardroom intrigue rather than what happens in a royal court. The language is also amended to include various South African argots, from the posh English favoured by Claudius (Tumelo Mogoshoa) to the edgier Cape Flats slang delivered by the ungovernable Polonius (the amusing, permanently scene-stealing Jazeek Mondell). And it’s a credit to the team behind the show that it becomes evident early on that these modifications are convincing and well thought-out. With a play and a story as famous as this one, creating fresh takes is a terribly risky business, and it’s probably the case that more re-inventions fail than those that succeed.
But Hip Hop Hamlet does. It’s strikingly different but compulsively watchable, and the thread of the original is never lost. Indeed, it’s so clear that it’s likely that many of the National School of the Arts learners – and those in the crowd who come from other schools – will find it easier to remember the plot based on this than on the original.
Motsoane’s character is as broodingly intense – as depressed as you’d expect, but with a strong, cutting edge that makes it unsurprising that he is still obeyed by those he commands. The most famous soliloquy in theatre is delivered as a rap that sits well in context and the scene in which he insults and abuses Ophelia (Leche Tangee) is as difficult to watch as you’d hope that sort of material should be.
All of the cast – particularly the principals – manage brilliantly with the huge amount of dialogue they’re apportioned. Everything has been internalised to the point where, even if there is a slight hitch in the flow of a particular line, the actors are able to keep the momentum going with a sensible improvisation, based on how familiar they are with the men and women they’re playing. And – again hugely impressively – the combination of smart writing, talent and committed performances mean that the young cast are able to make characters so famous as to almost be clichés their own, suggesting new facets that have somehow not yet otherwise been uncovered.
Stan Knight’s set and lighting make clever use of the scale and technological capacity of the Mandela stage with the limited resources a school production can offer. Based on this festival performance, this interpretation of Hamlet has the potential to be staged as a professional production. For maximum impact, it would need a bigger budget for the set and costumes, and the fluency of some of the rapping would need to be improved, with the lyrics possibly re-written so that those passages could be elevated to something like the style in which the songs in Hamilton are delivered.
But these are minor gripes in a production that realises an epic, ambitious vision extraordinarily well. Keep an eye on all involved going forward.