Repertory Philippines' 'Hamlet'--a prince's final fantasy

A prince's final fantasy 
By Walter Ang
February 12, 2008 (

When I saw Repertory Philippines' staging of Love's Labour's Lost many years ago, I hated it so much that I vowed never to watch any of their Shakespeare productions ever again. However, time passes and things change. Rep has been slowly stretching its wings with an infusion of new directors who take some adaptive liberty with their stagings as well as guest designers and actors.

When I heard that Ana Abad Santos-Bitong, one of Reps' resident actors, would not only be directing Hamlet but also setting it in a "post-apocalyptic" world, it piqued my interest. As did the posters and production photos that showed the cast in costumes inspired by the video game Final Fantasy, textured fabrics and funky silhouettes, with goggles and all, designed by Faust Peneyra.

If you think this will be a cutesy, kawaii J-pop staging, the ominous opening tableau will completely erase any notion of that. As Jethro Joaquin's creepy mood music marks the beginning of the play, the entire cast descends from the audience area, brandishing their humongous weapons, clambering to the stark stage designed by Dennis Lagdameo, which is back-lit a bloody scarlet.

My decision to give Rep another chance at Shakespeare did not go unrewarded. Bitong gives us an exciting and tight staging, using an edited version of the text that runs only two hours?just the right length for fidgety students who may be required to watch and even for those of us whose attention spans have been severely mottled down by mass media.

In a strange counterpoint to the harsh, barbaric setting, Bitong steers clear of the incestuous sexual undertones usually connected to the material (which was a central theme in last year's staging of Hamlet by Dulaang U.P.).

It's all right. Perhaps it's a concession to the expected target audience of high school and college students and, after all, considering this is a Rep production, she's pushed the envelope a lot already with (and definitely wins points for) her brave choices. She's already gotten our attention visually, so now all she wants to do is to tell Hamlet's story.

She drives her cast quickly and assuredly through the play's distilled paces. Hamlet's father has just died. Hamlet suspects that his uncle, Claudius, is the murderer. Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, marries Claudius. He wants to avenge his father, but how? His girlfriend, Ophelia, is getting in the way of his plans. Ophelia's father Polonius is such a nosy busy-body. This Danish prince has got some problems all right.

Niccolo Manahan plays the titular role with an even hand and does not stray into histrionics. If anything, he may have been a tad too reserved, but perhaps it is only to further the idea that his Hamlet is a more cold and calculating strategist the character is usually given credit for. In a way, we realize that he is as cruelly scheming as his uncle. Clearly, Bitong shows us that there are no blacks and whites in the world she has created for Hamlet.

A victim of these emotional gray areas and off-kilter morals is Cris Villonco as Ophelia, who takes a decidedly more edgy turn compared to her goody-two-shoes roles from previous Rep productions. No doubt people will say that her character's meltdown in the second act is moving, but it doesn't seem like a stretch for her?we kind of expect her to be able to pull that off.

What is more impressive is the setup to this scene, when Hamlet rebuffs her and a slew of confusion, anger and fear erupts from her sweet face as she trembles and wields her fan knife at Hamlet. Villonco lets us know that Ophelia, despite that spunky exterior, is a delicate flower tremulously being strangled by all this craziness around her. In short, seeing Villonco acting crazed and kicking ass is a delightful highlight.

Rosencratz and Guildenstern are no bumbling, comic-relief idiots in Bitong's version. They brim with an undercurrent of murderous insanity and we are afraid for Hamlet every time they come near him. Bodjie Pascua (yes, the Kuya Bodjie of our Batibot childhoods and, yes, he speaks excellent English) is engaging as Polonius.

Jaime Wilson is a storm of raw anguish and tender loneliness as Laertes, but what has happened to his voice? He has this wheeze that is uncomfortable to hear and it makes him sound almost like he has a lisp. I thought it was deliberate when he did it in last year's "Into the Woods," but now it just sounds unhealthy. Apart from that, the entire cast's enunciation and diction are amazingly crystal clear.

Lots of fun in this production is the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes. Kudos to weapons designer Lagdameo, whose oddly-shaped weapons provided an immediate, believable and visceral heft, and fight choreographer Paul Morales, for giving us a fully realized, metal-clanging-on-metal duel scene that was thrilling, suspenseful and realistic.

Overall, a highly recommended production of Hamlet, both to first-timers of any Shakespearean play and to the Bard's fans, who are likely to pick up some new insights with this unique staging.

Hamlet runs until February 17 at the Onstage theater of Greenbelt 1, Makati. Call 887?0710 or 891?9999 (Ticketworld).