Hamlet: Black and a Gang Member

Isabella Farr reviews a quirky, and 'different', local production of Hamlet. Not, Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch.

I have seen nine versions of Hamlet. Enough to know that the full title of the play is Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark. In high school, I spent almost a year rigorously studying the lives of Ophelia, Horatio, and Gertrude, and slaved away trying to decipher Hamlet’s every thought.* (This was not willing, but I am a Shakespeare nerd.) Each production I have seen has been different: some modern, some traditional, but each has projected the themes of madness, love, cruelty, and revenge in a beautiful and heartbreaking manner. Except for one: Urban Aphrodite’s recent production of Hamlet at the Shanghai Grand Theatre.

Last Saturday, on Feb. 21, I thought I was going to see what was going to be a history-making production of Hamlet, with Benedict Cumberbatch. The Shanghai Grand Theatre, in partnership with the National Theatre of London, was showing a live screening of the production in London. For the live production at the Barbican, tickets had sold out in six minutes. The great Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing was to play the most tragic Shakespeare character of all time.

Alas, this was not the play that I saw. Upon arrival, I was made aware of the fact that NYU Shanghai had not bought tickets to the live screening, but instead, had bought tickets for a local production of Hamlet. Even though tickets were RMB 100 less to the screening. I, and the 19 other ‘lucky’ recipients of tickets was more of a fool, than lucky. Bitter, with perhaps less desire for revenge than Hamlet himself, I thought, at least I get to see the play.

Walking into the theatre, I was suddenly blinded by the huge banner of light that was beaming into the audience. The screen, above the stage, was meant to be used for translation but seemed to detract from the overall haunting aura that Shakespeare was meant to portray. However, it was necessary – understanding Hamlet was hard enough for an English speaker, let alone a non-native speaker.

However, the big banner of light for translation was not what made this play feel so off. It was the fact that all of the characters were wearing leather jackets, with a “Sons of Anarchy” patch sewn onto their backs and fake tattoo sleeves. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, was now the Prince of the Hells Angels. What made all of this worse, was that Hamlet’s minions, all had badly accentuated American accents. Perhaps, my Commonwealth affiliation causes me to be biassed, but I am an advocate of the pure English accent, especially in a Shakespeare production.

After the American minions left the stage, Hamlet, his Queen mother, and his step-father – and former uncle – arrived. The boys both had the same “Sons of Anarchy” jackets on, with one slight difference: Hamlet and his mother were British. Finally, the words ‘hath’ and ‘thee’ sounded natural. Apart from his rugged British accent, there was another thing that made Hamlet stand out from the rest: he was black.

Ten minutes into the production, a heavyweight motorcycle was rolled onto the stage. Laertes, who in Shakespeare’s version is a vengeful soldier, was dressed like a Japanese samurai with blue hair. His sister, and the love of Hamlet’s life, Ophelia, was dressed like a Japanese anime character with Princess Leia buns and fishnet stockings. I’m sure the image confuses your mind as much as it did mine. Ophelia and her family were also Chinese, meaning that the director had to add in elementary token words, such as “哥哥” and “妹妹” – not too many to confuse all the 外国人 in the room. But, finally, a production of Hamlet that has more diversity than the 2016 Oscar awards.

The one interracial relationship that was doomed and could not survive seemed to be the only complex aspect of the entire play. No one was crying – I swear people were laughing at some point when Hamlet’s terrifying ghost father walked out with Ray-Ban’s and lots of leather. Everybody dies at the end, and no one was crying then either. There was so much going on that I even almost missed Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

Overall, I left the Shanghai Grand Theatre feeling anything but grand. I was unmotivated and left with the question: could Shakespeare really be this bad? Is this why people hate Shakespeare? So, my advice to all of you Hamlet virgins: never watch a Shakespeare play unless it has the seal of approval by the Royal Shakespeare Company or includes a famous British actor like Kenneth Branagh or Benedict Cumberbatch. And to NYUSH, I am still bitter.

This article was written by Isabella Farr. Please send an email to managing@oncenturyavenue.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Matthew Gibson

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