REVIEW: Distilling Dulaang UP's 'Hamlet'

Distilling Dulaang UP's 'Hamlet'
By Walter Ang
November 27, 2006
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The world of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is thrown into a doozy when he learns of his father's death and when his mother Getrude marries his uncle Claudius. He encounters his father's ghost who accuses Claudius of murder. Hamlet must now to find a way to confirm this claim and exact revenge.

In Shakespeare's most quoted play ("To be or not to be," "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," "murder most foul," "the lady doth protests too much," and so on.), death is assuredly a constant shadow hanging over the characters.

In Dulaang U.P.'s staging, dubbed "Hamlet: Redux," director Tony Mabesa couples death with its most famous partner: sex. He prologues the play with a bacchanalia of beasts and phantoms with oversized sex organs, then proceeds to immerse the characters in a world of sexual tension filled with shades of incest, Oedipal love and even voyeurism and cross-dressing.

With English and Tagalog shows, this production also attempts to bring the Bard closer to our times by having the cast wear modern dress and occasionally using pop-culture references like rock-and-roll music, cellphones and drugs, as well as utilizing a set design that incorporates video montages designed by Winter David. Mabesa uses these devices to effectively tighten the action and point out possible motivations of certain characters.

English and Tagalog
Mabesa has created this layered, complex world where his dual-language production offers subtle differences for each version.

Jeremy Domingo leads the English cast that channels a bit of good old British reserve, their emotions broil under the tough facades their characters so valiantly try to put up. Domingo imbues Hamlet with a constant rumbling interior confusion, he is torn by what's going on around him. Richard Cunanan as Claudius is incredibly at ease with the Bard's lines and uses them with great clever timing.

The Tagalog cast, led by Arnold Reyes, as Filipinos are wont to do, wear their emotions on their sleeves. Reyes takes Hamlet on a more frenzied path and lashes out at everyone around him. Angeli Bayani as Gertrudes and Cherry Canton as Ofelia deliver powerful nuanced characterizations.

Both casts maneuver through Mabesa's judicious editing of the text, sustaining the suspense and dread in this abridged two-hour version
(uncut, it runs for four hours).

We feel for Hamlet. He is grieving, he's in torment, his loses his girlfriend, etc. Serious themes, for sure.

However, one trick to watching a Shakespearean tragedy is to mine it for all its inherent ridiculousness. On the other hand, if you think about it, Hamlet is paranoid, neurotic, suicidal, sees and believes in ghosts, and is prone to exaggeration and theatrics. After all, this is the guy who pretends to go insane and employs an acting troupe to help solve the mystery.

There's the rub. While the poetry makes us smile, the underlying melodrama makes us smirk. In fact, in National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio's translation, some scenes unintentionally become quite funny as the Tagalog exposes a fresh take on how silly some of the situations or the English lines can be.

This is where we experience Mabesa showing us the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge"-ness of it all. He presents Hamlet's childhood friends Rosencratz and Guildenstern as bumbling pansies that recall Tin-tin's detective friends, Thomson and Thompson. He also chooses strong actors Alan Palileo (English) and Jacques Borlaza (Tagalog) to portray the "lowly" clown/gravedigger, whose flippant remarks about death mocks all the "high" characters and provides perspective for the audience.

For a cheeky coup d' grace, Mabesa stages the final duel in a way that's inspired by a widely emailed video of Japanese ping-pong players manipulated like bunraku puppets by men in black. Definitely a Hamlet for our times.

Hamlet runs until December 9. Call Dulaang U.P. at 926-1349.

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