I first came to Hamlet in high school. We watched the Kenneth Branagh movie, had to analyse the “To be, or not to be” speech. Analyse in the sense of reading it closely and saying something about what Hamlet is really saying. My teenage self was excited with the possibilities of that. I could claim that Hamlet was saying anything I wanted. I merely had to gather the evidence.

I gathered the evidence, like a detective, but the evidence did not support my arguments. Reading used to be an exercise in power, in imposing meaning on the text. I learned that the evidence determined what claims could be made of a character and a text. Reading became a listening exercise.

Shakespeare is challenging to either read or listen to. His vision may be universal, but it requires training to clarify it. We are remote from the action in terms of both time and space. But if we can somehow get at the emotion in his language, we may find that we are not very far away at all.

The Play’s The Thing

Shakespeare Demystified’s Hamlet: A Performance-Lecture was a listening exercise. Key scenes on Hamlet’s journey were performed. In between these scenes, the actors talked about the play. This eased the audience into appreciating it.

One of the ideas that SD tried to communicate was that there are many interpretations to Hamlet. The actors presented views about the play: Why does Gertrude marry Claudius? Is Hamlet mad? Does Hamlet love Ophelia? Why does Hamlet delay? And of course these opinions informed their performances, but we were left to figure out the answers.

Actors brought their own interpretation to the roles and this reinforced the multiple interpretations idea. Anne James, for instance, was asked if she thought Hamlet is mad. She gave two answers: one for the scene she had just performed, another for the play as a whole.

Several actors played Hamlet and each played the character differently. David Lim’s Hamlet was a screwball in the spirit of Jerry Lewis. I thought Salesman Hamlet during Anne James’s turn as the character, selling himself on a course of action. Marina’s Hamlet was unhinged, yearning for his mother.

One may be tempted to compare these performances, but Hamlet sometimes changes drastically from scene to scene. You could say an evil twin kills him and takes his place every time he walks off-stage.

One may be tempted to compare these performances, but Hamlet sometimes changes drastically from scene to scene. You could say an evil twin kills him and takes his place every time he walks off-stage.

A famous example is the change in Hamlet between the 2nd and 3rd soliloquoys. In the 2nd, Hamlet is resolute. He is shocked out of complacency by the player’s speech. He comes up with a plan and he’s excited to execute it. In the 3rd, Hamlet is overwhelmed. He is weary and unable to commit to any course of action. Where did all that energy go? Indeed, the character seems to anticipate our criticism. “And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”

In the lecture-performance, Anne James performed the 2nd soliloquoy and Soon Heng performed the 3rd. James’s Hamlet was salesman-like, as previously stated, called to action by the player’s speech. Soon Heng’s Hamlet is exhausted, his energy spent. He’s being pulled in so many directions, he can barely think.

About, My Brain!

Having an interpretation is one thing. Communicating it to the audience is another. Kien Lee has a strong physical presence, but his accent is distracting. Both Kien Lee and David Lim had memorised their lines, but I struggled to hear and feel them. Intonation was barely used as a vehicle of meaning. They had done a lot of work on the language, that much was clear. But more work needed to be done.

I disagreed with Marina and David’s interpretation of some scenes. But when I looked at the text again, I couldn’t say that theirs were not supported. And I can’t say that they were unsure of how to play their roles. They were faithful to their reading of the scene. I wish they went deeper, but perhaps this is something to look forward to, if the full-length production comes to pass.

All the World’s a Stage

Much ado was made out of the staging, which is minimal. A props table at the back of the stage. Chairs down the wings for the actors. No backdrop. This was a performance-lecture, and its purpose was to inform. But SD weren’t afraid to play a scene to the end, for the sake of emotional intensity.

Minimal staging keeps the budget down, but there’s another reason. We expect productions of Shakespeare to have lavish sets and costumes. But Shakespeare Demystified sticks to a “simple setting,” they told me, “to encourage the public and students to also try performing Shakespeare as part of their exploration of his works.” I like the aesthetic, but I’d need to see if it can work in a full-scale production.

SD clarified some dramatic elements before using them. Before Hamlet’s first soliloquoy, Kien Lee explained what a soliloquoy is: a character speaking directly to the audience, as if they were his or her ally. Sometimes, language was clarified by the staging. Instead of explaining that a bodkin is a kind of dagger, Soon Heng (as Hamlet) pulled out a dagger when he said the word. These were nice touches.

And throughout, effort was spent in preserving the surprises for the audience. In one scene, the king, Claudius, is praying. Hamlet is going to kill him, but decides not to. If Claudius was praying when he died, his soul would go to heaven. Hamlet doesn’t want that. But Claudius isn’t praying at all. And Hamlet misses his chance. If SD hadn’t explained the significance of prayer, and the meaning of Claudius’s final lines, the point of the scene would have been lost.

The Rest is Silence

When I reviewed SD’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor last year, I said that the explanation takes some of the responsibility away from the scene. There’s no pressure to get the scene right, because they can explain it afterwards. Perhaps that was unfair.

SD told me, “Many people, epecially in Malaysia, may have to study Shakespeare at school without a chance of seeing his plays performed live.” I never saw a live performance of Hamlet when I studied the play in school. And I found the Kenneth Branagh movie incomprehensible. I once attended a production of Henry V at Akademi Seni Kebangsaan’s Experimental Theatre. Performed by an all-male, English cast, in a World War II setting, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. My dad still has the show poster in his office.

Live performance is memorable. The opportunity to see it gives students a chance to form a living connection with long-dead playwrights.

Any way you slice it though, more Shakespeare is better than less.*

Hamlet was performed in April 2014. Shakespeare Demystified returns this year with a new performance doing what they do best: demystifying Othello, by Shakespeare. The curtains go up today for Othello, and will run until the 26th. For more info, click here.