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Review: Shakespeare Demystified’s Hamlet A Performance Lecture

Yasmin Bathamanathan reviews Hamlet A Performance Lecture by Shakespeare Demystified that was on at penangpac from 10-13 April 2014.

“To be or not to be …”

How many a times have we used this famous line from Hamlet without fully understanding its meaning? I remember using this very line in a debate I participated more than a decade ago in school. Sure, it is dramatic, pregnant with existential conundrum in whatever context we deem it be:

Successful – to be or not to be

Happy – to be or not to be

Wedded – to be or not to be

You get the gist.

Yet, only today, at the ripe old age of *ahem* did I find out what Shakespeare meant by that famous line in Hamlet’s soliloquy at Shakespeare Demystified‘s Hamlet A Performance Lecture. You see, in his many philosophical ramblings post-Hamlet the Older’s death, Hamlet the Prince either devices plans to bring his Uncle/Stepfather/Daddy-Murderer to justice or to seek vengeance upon murder of his Daddy (Hamlet, the Dead King @ Hamlet the Older).

However, in this particular soliloquy in the Nunnery Scene, sad puppy Hamlet contemplates suicide. “To be or not to be”, with the emphasis on the verb “be”, which indicates a state of being. In other words to EXIST or NOT TO EXIST @ ALIVE or DEAD. Nothing to do with success, happiness, matrimony or whatever else. “To be or not to be” was a question of “Should I live or should I kill myself”.

Wow! I know, right? If only the 16-year old me knew this. She probably would have known had she had the chance to attend something like Shakespeare Demystified‘s Hamlet A Performance Lecture.

Hamlet, while being one of the greatest plays of Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the entire history of mankind, is also mind-numbingly long. Four-hours long, give or take. Being the guardians of the demystification of Shakespearean sagas, this vagabond (not really; they are based in KL) troupe of Shakespearean fanboys and fangirls from Malaysia have come up with a surprisingly approachable introduction to Hamlet.

Selecting key scenes and events from the play, the cast of Hamlet A Performance Lecture first introduce the scene, give the audience a little background on the context, discuss the motivations behind some of the actions, provide literary criticism on the characters and events, and explain certain terms (who would have thought an innocuous phrase such as “country matters” can have double entendre?).

Five actors – Kien Lee, Anne James, Lim Soon Heng, Marina Tan and David H. Lim – each get to play Hamlet in different scenes besides playing out other characters. Each of them brings something different to the characterisations of Hamlet, giving the audience a somewhat rich and diverse experience. Needless to say, each of them is a delight in their individual portrayal, like Kien Lee’s maniacal Hamlet is cockier and crazier than Anne James’s strong and contemplative Hamlet. 

While it was an enlightening and entertaining for me as an audience to experience a deconstructed performance of Hamlet, the literature student in me was in full awe. The Shakespeare Demystified troupe has a lot more to offer than mere entertainment, and that is education. The two hours spent watching them and listening the discussions during the Q&A session made me come to one conclusion:

WE NEED TO INCORPORATE SHAKESPEARE DEMYSTIFIED (OR ITS CONCEPT) INTO OUR LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE SYLLABUS!

In case anyone from the Ministry of Education Malaysia is reading this, please send this message to your higher-ups:

CALL SHAKESPEARE DEMYSTIFIED TODAY AND START BRAINSTORMING! ASAP!

As for me, I am going to wait and hope that Shakespeare Demystified does not make me wait a whole year for their next production.