Lighting designer Sandy Chiew (left) and Lim Kien Lee in Shakespeare Demystified’s Hamlet.
A group of Shakespeare enthusiasts ponder, preach and parody Hamlet.
They have rubbed shoulders with the Merry Wives of Windsor, traded tales with The Merchant of Venice, and ruled Rome with Julius Caesar. Now, Shakespeare Demystified is taking on Hamlet, the play with the troubled son of a dead king who has the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy to his name. Presented as a performance-lecture, the actors will take on selected scenes from the play, then take them apart, in easy bite-sizes.
“Our previous three productions were more plot-driven. We used narration as a chronological glue to tie one scene with another. This time, we focus more on the analyses of themes and characters,” says Lim Kien Lee (he co-directs with Qahar Aqilah), who takes on several scenes in Hamlet.
The team had a run in Penang prior to its staging in KL, and received enthusiastic reviews. Kien Lee pointed out that Shakespeare’s syntax poses a challenge to many of today’s actors and audiences. “Sometimes it sounds like Yoda-speak,” he said.
But he added that the works are not meant to be read as literature alone – which is often the case – but they are meant to be performed and listened to. “When dealing with the text, we must bear in mind that the words and phrases Shakespeare uses are not only for conveying the meaning, but their sounds and rhythms play an important part in charting the character’s internal journey.”
It’s stuff like this – and so much more – that the five actors (Kien Lee, Lim Soon Heng, Anne James, Marina Tan, David H Lim) take on with gusto. The lecture serves to provide the contexts of the play and scenes, as well as the themes. Although this isn't Hamlet the play in its entirety, the performance-lecture aims to provide a foundation for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular.
“The more I engage with Shakespeare’s language, the more I am convinced that his writing can be a model for our students,” said Soon Heng. “He writes with concreteness that makes the intangible palpable. We can breathe in the described scents and taste the described flavours. We can run our fingers over the textures of his words; we see in our mind’s eye the pictures painted with words; we hear the musicality of his language as sibilants hiss out disapproval or when hard consonants clash and clank out a cacophony.”
Reminiscing that he fell in love with the play ever since he read it for the first time when he was 12, Soon Heng shared, “I was hooked. Not to say that I understood it then, but that (“to be or not to be”) soliloquy sucked me in and I memorised it and kept it in my 12-year-old heart.”
This soliloquy doesn't move the plot; it's a philosophical contemplation of a young man dealing with something of great weight in his life. “The thought that his father was murdered by his uncle who is now married to his mother. This calls for him to act ... but what are the consequences?” questioned Soon Heng.
While it's not difficult to imagine him being quite at home on stage while feigning madness and contemplating suicide, he's quick to point out that he has much to live up to. “This is a tough soliloquy (to perform) because so many people know it, and consequently have their own interpretation of how it is to be done. So the actor on stage is dealing with expectations.”
It certainly doesn’t take any pressure off the actors, knowing that there are more than 50 films based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and many famous actors who have played this character. But they take it in stride. As Kien Lee added, “I feel a great weight playing Hamlet because of the line of great actors in history that have tackled this role. It is hard to find something that has not been done before. For me it is like having top-notch advice from various masters, but in the end I have to pick what works and resonates with me.”
“Besides, what’s there to not like about this well-written play?” he asked. “It is a ghost story, a revenge story, there are lies, deceptions, double-crosses, a swordfight. There are deaths by the sword, deaths by poison, death by water.”
Oh, the drama.
> "Hamlet" is on at KLPAC, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, KL, April 23-26, 8.30pm, with 3pm matinees on April 26 and 27. Call (03) 4047 9000 or visit www.klpac.org and www.facebook.com/ShakespeareDemystified for details. Tickets are RM30.