Tragedy seems written in the stars in this lengthy production as the cosmos themselves bid our sweet prince goodnight. 

Ranking among Shakespeare’s best works, it’s little surprise that Hamlet has seen countless productions and interpretations over the centuries. Opening the Esplanade’s Huayi Festival 2019, director Li Liuyi’s latest production of the piece sees the moody protagonist played by film star Hu Jun (Red Cliff, East Palace West Palace), and has managed to reach new heights of bleakness and melancholia that highlight the senselessness of the violence and death seen throughout the nearly four hour long performance, leaving audiences with heavy hearts and plenty of food for thought surrounding the nature of fate and the vast loneliness of the universe.

Translated by Li Jianming into Mandarin, this production of Hamlet feels especially conversational, with the language simplified rather than esoteric, and easy to understand, for the most part directly translating the original words and paraphrasing them at others, making this production one easy enough to follow even for those unfamiliar with the text. Returning home for his father’s funeral, the titular teenaged prince of Denmark is beset by perversion as he finds out his mother has remarried, this time to his treacherous uncle. Tasked by his father’s ghost to carry out vengeance, Hamlet is beset by doubt and hesitation as to the righteousness of revenge, leading to madness and a weary depression that befalls him as the play reaches its poisonous end.

While sticking almost word for word to the original script, director Li Liuyi has made several tweaks to the direction that makes this version of Hamlet particularly different from previous ones. In terms of his casting choice, the decision to have both Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and Ophelia played by Lu Fang, as well as both Hamlet’s father’s ghost and uncle Claudius played by Pu Cunxin, adds an overtly Oedipal slant to the classic text, quite literally interpreting a key source of Hamlet’s afflictions as wresting with the want to sleep with his mother and kill his father. While this can get occasionally confusing, if one interprets most of the play to be seen through Hamlet’s eyes, it makes sense that identities would get muddled amidst his burgeoning madness, clouding his sense of logic and awareness of circumstances surrounding him, outside of his own problems.

One could even extend that train of thought to think about Hamlet himself as trapped in his own mind, literally within the centre of his own universe, perfectly encapsulated by British designer Michael Simon’s unique set and lighting that arrests us from start to end. Deceptively simple, the mad world of Li Liuyi’s Hamlet features a set comprising a flat, brown disc. This “flat Earth” is precariously balanced as it tilts and revolves throughout the play as characters move around it, suggesting a constant state of unease characterising the play, and the constant need to right the wrongs that result in a physical imbalance on the planet. With the stage mostly dark save for a few choice lights that resemble stars in the night sky, and an ominous, mass of swords forming a spherical satellite hanging above, the consequences of the events that unfold in Hamlet feel of cosmic proportions.

Hanging like the Sword of Damocles above Hamlet’s head, threatening to fall and crush him, the sword-moon is performance anxiety given form, as Hamlet, constantly on edge, obsesses over the lunar object throughout the play, both embracing and rejecting it. It is the set that lends both atmosphere and power to most of Hamlet’s monologues, with the impression that he is utterly, completely alone in the universe, the darkness seemingly closing in on him as he reflects on fate and existence itself, As Hamlet, Hu Jun performs most of these monologues with the requisite amount of gravitas and melancholia befitting of Hamlet. It helps that the haunting, otherworldly screech of the er hu played live by Lin Chenxiehang, and the wailing songs of Jiujiu (composed by Zhou Juan) add chills in the air each time the ghost appears, and helps to illustrate the weight of particularly heavy moments.

While for the most part, this was a rather well performed production (kudos especially to Li Shilong as the bumbling, loquacious Polonius, and Pu Cunxin delivering believable villainy as Claudius), certain elements did not manage to achieve their intent, or were perhaps testing the limits of audience members’ patience (the single intermission occurs about 2 hours into the performance).

There is a distinct attempt to raise the profile and importance of Ophelia, with most of her scenes dragged out and allowing for Lu Fang to fully embrace her character as she descends into madness. However, Ophelia’s importance never rises to become anything other than an accessory to Hamlet’s madness, never a strong character in her own right. One particular scene sees both Lu Fang and Hu Jun simultaneously perform monologues that segue into each other, interesting for sure, but ultimately distracting from the meaning of the monologues themselves as Ophelia’s words and character simply does not match up to the power of Hamlet’s (particularly grievous as it is Hamlet’s famous ‘to be or not to be’ monologue that feels butchered).

Still, this is a production of Hamlet that should be applauded for its sheer atmosphere alone, with plaudits going to it for being able to plunge audiences into the murky, depressing realm of Hamlet’s own psyche. As the cast exits off the edge of the set, as if leaving the edges of the Earth itself, Hamlet is left completely alone as he is swallowed up by an inky black darkness underneath. Echoing his famous monologue one last time, one is left with nothing but hollow silence as he stands stark still under the moon, cursed by fate and the cosmos themselves to stand in fear, trapped in his own personal hell for all eternity in spite of the ‘justified’ vengeance and bloodshed he has carried out, inevitable tragedy itself written in the stars.

Photo Credit: Jack Yam, Courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 15/2/19

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark plays till 17th February 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of the Esplanade’s Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts. Tickets available here

The 2019 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts takes place around the Esplanade from 15th – 24th February 2019. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here



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