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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

HAMLETI (article first published : 2000-07-17)

William Shakespeare's Hamlet is steeped in fear, anarchy, betrayal and death. Plenty of the latter - at the end the stage is strewn with bodies. As a director, how do you begin to create a dramatic atmosphere with a cast of young people who have just lived through a "Hamlet" scenario of their own on a major scale? Parents tortured, relatives butchered and homes destroyed, fleeing for their lives until such time as it was safe enough to return to pick up the shattered pieces of a life.

This was one of the problems facing British director David Gothard when he set out to create a production of Hamlet with Albanian translation by Fan S Noli for the National Theatre of Prishtine Kosova/Tetre Kombetar.

"My relationship with Kosova went back to before the war when I was working on theatre projects in Sarajevo," says David. "But now things were a lot different. The actors hadn't been earning anything for years and the older performers were scared that the younger generation would put them out of work. While the project was funded by the British ministry of development, I only had a small budget. So I decided on multiple casting - that way everybody got a little. We had three Ophelias and four ghosts!"

At the auditions, the actors were asked to perform the famous "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquoy. "And suddenly a kind of catharsis happened," explains Gothard. "The men, who had found it difficult to talk about their experiences of the war suddenly began to speak. And I was able to align Hamlet's dialogue to their feelings and say: There - someone understands. Shakespeare knows about that already."

Durban film-maker Cheryl Johnson was filming a documentary in Kosova last November when she met up with David Gothard and the cast of Hamlet. "She was coming down the main street and we literally hi-jacked her to come and see a rehearsal," said David cheerfully. Struck by the youngsters' talent, energy and commitment, Cheryl offered to help them bring the production to South Africa. Because of travel document and red tape problems, the production never made it out of Kosova to Grahamstown where it was due to give five performances on the main festival. However, Durban audiences will be able to see the play when it appears in the Playhouse Opera at 19h30 on July 10 as part of the Amasiko cultural programme attached to the XIII International AIDS Conference.

The play is two and a half hours long and mainly in Albanian, although there is English dialogue. 'You don't have to worry about the story too much," says David. "Just jump in and enjoy it. It's done with a great deal of European Adriatic spirit and it's certainly not gloomy."

Postscript: Those who didnít see this production missed out on a real theatre experience. Despite not understanding the language, I was impressed by the performances and fascinated by David Gothardís handling of the play. It was a joy to see the full technical facilities of the Opera being used Ė the ghost went right up the turret on the side of the stage to where Iíve only seen technicians go!

It was also pure pleasure to hear unplugged speech on the stage, reaffirming the fact that the Opera is after all a theatre and acoustically designed to present speech without microphones. All kudos to this energetic and committed young company for a fine performance. Come back soon. Caroline Smart)




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