Struggles of Ghosts


Janni Younge Productions – Abstract Festival

The stage is a space delineated by veils and illuminated by blue lights. The puppets resemble statue-like faces as they float onto the stage, they are the guards of the Elsinore Castle. Their bodies are composed of gray cloaks, hovering as if they themselves were ghosts, not just the older Hamlet they are observing. Janni Younge’s production of Hamlet focuses on the timeless nature of the story and the possibilities of abstract puppet theater. I witnessed the performance at the Abstract – 1st Budapest International Contemporary Puppet Festival. We find ourselves in a unique space where everything feels ancient yet timeless. The frayed edges of the set and the deeply carved features of the larger-than-life carved heads reflect the wearing effect of time, while the floating movements and undulating cloaks create an impression as if eternally present ghosts are retelling their story again and again. The setting: Denmark, Elsinore Castle – at least according to the text, immediately contradicted by the tribal chants accompanying the wedding celebration scene and the echoing, primordial sounds evoking otherworldly rituals when the ghost appears.

Although Janni Younge shortened the story to two hours in her production, she didn’t change much of the narrative; she merely adapted it to the rules of puppet theater. The bodies of the larger-than-human-sized puppet heads are always formed by the arms of two puppeteers, who strive to move in synchrony. The movements are consistently theatrical and exaggerated, with the symmetry of the arms only deviating or becoming one-sided in a few scenes. The focal point of the performance is Hamlet’s struggles and inner conflicts, which are conveyed through the occasionally argumentative dialogues between the two actors representing Hamlet’s two selves.

Mongi Mtombeni and Siyamthanda Sinani represent the more sensitive and revengeful sides of Hamlet’s character as they engage in conflicts within their respective monologues. One of them doubts the words of the ghost, would forget about the whole matter, and immerse themselves in love for Ophelia, while the other cries out for revenge, draws their sword, and pushes the girl away. The internal struggles are manifested on the level of movement in some scenes as well: the two puppeteers occasionally take the puppet away from each other or step out of their internal voice role and start playing themselves. This is especially true for Siyamthanda Sinani, who consistently portrays Hamlet while the other actors handle multiple characters at once.

Although the various role changes and the relationships between the actors become somewhat confusing after a while, it is worth highlighting the parallel between Hamlet and Laertes. Younge places great emphasis on the similar tragic fates of the two young men, which reaches its climax in their fight scene, where Mongi Mtombeni, who manipulates Laertes, and Siyamthanda Sinani, who manipulates Hamlet, representing Hamlet’s two selves, clash. The parallel is further strengthened by the fact that the same two actors, Roshina Ratnam and Samkelo Zihlangu, portray Gertrude and Polonius, who completely abandon their children. Timothy Redpath should be mentioned for his portrayal of the tyrannical Claudius, from which the oppressive and colonizing past of the Western world can be inferred.

The performance consistently translates the world of Shakespearean theater into the rules of puppet theater. The highlight of the play is undoubtedly the mousetrap scene, where the puppets of Hamlet’s world watch the portrayal of the anthropomorphic rag dolls, depicting the murder of the old king. Similarly, the depiction of the characters’ deaths is consistent, as the actors lay their puppets down on the stage and then leave them alone. In this way, the end becomes meaningful by severing the connection between the puppeteer and the puppet.

In addition, the production incorporates numerous motifs and a complex system of allusions, such as the colors of the materials. Ophelia’s veil, for example, is pristine snow-white, while Gertrude’s is already off-white. These subtle references, however, are often difficult to notice amidst the overwhelming amount of text. Although Younge shortened the story to two hours, there is still a considerable amount of dialogue delivered in accordance with the English theatrical tradition, which, especially with the archaic language of the Hungarian subtitles, can be tiring for the audience. Younge’s directing technique excellently adapts the drama, but she is reluctant to make changes to its core: the text itself.





Translated by Balogi Virág
Shakespeare: Hamlet (Janni Younge Productions)
Actors: Mongi Mthombeni, Siyamthanda Sinani, Roshina Ratnam, Samkelo Zihlangu, Timothy Redpath, Tshiamo Moretlwe, Beviol Swartz
Puppet and Stage Designer: Janni Younge, Samkelo Zihlangu, Mandiseli Maseti, Julia Wojciechowska, Marissa Steenkamp
Dramaturge: Janni Younge, Roshina Ratnam
Composer: Daniel Eppel
Director: Janni Younge
Abstract – 1st Budapest International Contemporary Puppet Festival
Budapest Puppet Theatre
05. 14. 2023
Photogpraphy: Marcell Piti

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