Hamlet doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He fidgets in his pockets, rubs his temples to stoke his memory, ushers words from his mouth with fluttering fingers, and slaps his scalp in frustration. As his bloody resolve grows, he grips Ophelia’s face, tangles his fingers in Gertrude’s hair. Hamlet’s course is mapped manually, restlessly. His “thoughts black, hands apt” (Act 3, scene 2).
Naeem Hayat, one of the Shakespeare’s Globe Globe to Globe tour’s two alternating Hamlets (on the right below), and the star of January 12’s production at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, is a whippet of a man. Short, slight in torso and thin in leg, with a big, angular head supporting large eyes and ears. His hands are big, long fingered, expressive, and essential to his performance.
He reminds me a bit of the neurological homunculus diagrammed by the psychiatrist Walter Penfield in the 1940s: a man whose proportions are distorted by the outsized space the brain gives to the expressive and manipulative parts of the body.
This suits Hamlet, a man grown estranged from his body by grief. The normal, unconscious functions of digestion, locomotion, sex, are beginning to atrophy, as obsessive thought and fretting hands grow to fill the space. Aside from expressive face and nimble hands, Hayat’s body stays quite still for much of the play. He stands, feet together, back straight, head thrust forward, swaying slightly from side to side as he talks. He’s a Hamlet who is physically dis-eased, and he sets the people around him on edge.
This physical performance is suited to an Egyptian audience. At the start of the show, one of the actors greeted the crowd with a hearty “Salaam Aleikum!” immediately followed by “From now on, we will perform in English. Good luck!” While nearly all of the audience was at least conversant in English, some of the members I spoke to admitted to struggling to follow the show. (This wasn’t helped by a bit of ill-advised doubling late in the play, when Jennifer Leong, who played Ophelia, also appeared as one of the mourners at Ophelia’s funeral, prompting some muttered “didn’t she die?” in Arabic). The physicality of the performers was compelling, especially Hayat’s Hamlet; Leong’s Ophelia, moving from wounded incomprehension to manic, suicidal clarity; and Beruce Khan’s Laertes, who bellowed with anger and shook with grief, and proved the more convincing fencer. Egyptians famously talk with their hands, and Egyptian cinema is a masterclass in histrionics.
This is a good place to put your back into a performance.
Not all of it worked. The Mousetrap was played as a scenery-chewing farce, one of several scenes that were played a bit too light, too funny. As a result, Hamlet, while he is brilliant and troubled, is never quite frightening enough. The Hamlet who conjures up the “convocation of politic worms” (4.3) gnawing on Polonius should be terrifying. We should see him through the eyes of Gerturde and Claudius and Ophelia: the man they’ve known for ages has been replaced by a murderous changeling, capable of anything. Hamlet famously slips our interpretive grasp, carrying out his revenge in a fashion that confounds rational explanation, but Hayat too often made him merely clever, not dangerous. While he conveyed anger and menace and anguished love in his face-to-faces with Ophelia and Gertrude (his hands gripping their heads), his soliloquies lacked this emotional danger. The line “My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” (4.5) was a shouted threat, but a bit too controlled, affected. Hamlet was still trying to talk himself into revenge at a moment when he should be resolved.
The near constant chittering of cell phones and scattered camera flashes from the crowd didn’t help either. (It was still better than Aïda at the Cairo Opera House, where I saw several people recording the whole show on tablets.) Admonitions to shut off your phone and refrain from taking pictures have never worked here.
But these are quibbles. It was a rare treat to see world-class Shakespeare here in Egypt, and to see the Biblioteca’s impressive but underutilized facilities put to good use. The best part was the crowd: overwhelmingly Egyptian, young, educated, and stylish. Skinny jeans and boots impeccably paired with hijab. It was a treat to wander the Biblioteca’s grounds before and after the show, hearing slangy din of colloquial Arabic, spoken loudly and at high speed in classic urban Egyptian fashion, punctuated by bursts of laughter and shouting. It was good to see several of my students there as well.
It was an event for al shebab, the youth, the segment of society that gives me the most hope in a country caught in vicious social, political, and ecological binds. Like Denmark, Egypt’s a prison, and I found myself talking to more than one bright young thing who wants to emigrate. But the energy, humour, and intense affection of the youth are a saving grace. As I often do, I found myself hoping they find a nation worthy of them, wherever that undiscovered country may be.