The Bard at a Bar and a play unfolds

Hamlet at Elsie’s Bar: A StageLightandMagic production at the Lionel Wendt from February 22 to March 1.
Reviewed by Dushy Parakrama

When I heard that the Lionel Wendt was to be the venue for the world premiere of ‘Hamlet at Elsie’s Bar’, a musical comedy written by two hitherto unheard of American playwrights, I was curious to see what Mark Eaden and Fazer Hoesh had to offer us here in Colombo.

With surmounting anticipation, I sat within the front few rows (under an over-efficient air conditioning vent at the Wendt) awaiting what must surely be a treat in view of the fact that it was to be directed by Feroze Kamardeen – of whom I happen to be quite a fan.

My fascination with the multi-talented Feroze was mainly through his ‘Noir Extra Dark Theatre’ – and a musical comedy was to be the other extreme of his directing abilities. I was curious and excited.

To begin with, it is appropriate that I should commend the Elsie’s Bar musicians. From the first measure we knew that we were listening to musicians of extraordinary talent. The sound that filled the auditorium was full and melodic, where the elaborate sprays of runs and chords were suspended beyond their physics, inhaled by the appreciative crowd. At no point did they over-power the singers on stage – and that is praise indeed.

On the Friday that I saw this production, the role of Shakespeare was played by Nathan Imboden. As he climbed down the stairs in the tentative few moments of the opening, the audience responded appropriately – the sleeping men awoke and the restless sat still. For my part, I sat in my seat transfixed, unwilling to move in the slightest, wanting to hear everything that this actor had to offer.

And so the story unfolded – Shakespeare with a difference…

The plot

‘Hamlet at Elsie’s Bar’ is in fact about young Shakespeare reliving the past eight months while he struggles to find his lost creative muse and finally coming up with what becomes a roaring success. All this happens within the confines of Elsie’s Bar, inhabited by characters like Christopher Marlowe (portrayed effectively by Tracy Jayasinghe); Ben Johnson (Pasan Ranaweera) and a permanently drunk John Donne (a trifle overacted by Buddhima de Mel).

Additionally, various other characters flit in and out of Elsie’s Bar, trying hard to encourage young Shakespeare to get a move on. Paradoxically, it is in fact the family who owns the Bar that provide the plot for Hamlet, and this happens amidst a riotous rush of colour and motion, sound and song – an alchemy of mingled emotions of laughter and tears.

Osric, a rather underwhelming man (played by Saajid Reyaaz) is in the happy position of being the bar owner, married to the beautiful Ophelia (sensitively played by Swasha Perera), and the proud father of Horatio, a loving and loyal son (powerfully characterised by the handsome Yasas Ratnayake). All would have been well if not for the fact that Osric’s brother Claude (Rajiv Ponweera) decides that he is going to win back the affections of his great love Ophelia. The rest, as they say, is history. Claude kills Osric and marries Ophelia, but is ultimately defeated by the vengeful Horatio.

Meanwhile, Horatio and Layertee, a beautiful village girl (stylishly portrayed by Natasha Rathnayake better known for her amazing repertoire of jazz and blues) fall in love with each other and plan to marry. Unfortunately for them, the two bar-maids Gilda Stern (Tarika Wickramaratne) and Rosie Crantz (Maheshika de Alwis) put a spoke in the wheel and succeed in breaking up their union, as they are both besotted by Horatio who, sadly for them, is oblivious to their sentiments. Although Rosie and Gilda pine for Horatio’s love and dream of a future with him, he in fact eventually clobbers both of them to death with a barstool!

He also, in due course, coerces Shakespeare into helping him poison Claude. Unable to bear the loss of Claude, Ophelia – in a brilliant and moving scene which had me reduced to tears - drinks the remainder of the poisoned ale. Shakespeare may have been devastated by his own act of treachery, but by now has collected enough of a truly magnificent script to complete his masterpiece – ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ – with a little bit of help from all at Elsie’s Bar!

The script and the actors

The script successfully included the musical imagery that Shakespeare gives to speech. It was largely fluid, very clever, and the words of the songs set to well-known tunes made it bright and cheery – a hard-to-resist play. Hats off to the Director for carefully blending the many ingredients of a Shakespearean-type atmosphere by carefully choosing a well-balanced cast. There may have been one or two weak links, but what made the play delightfully accessible and enjoyable was that the key roles were delicately balanced, with no single character overshadowing the other. Each and every one of them clearly enjoyed and revelled in their role and carried out their parts with great sensitivity.

Having said that, I am compelled to single out the comic duo – Gilda Stern and Rosie Crantz – the two love-sick barmaids at Elsie’s Bar, played to near perfection by Tarika Wickramaratne and Maheshika de Alwis. Their superb acting matched their incredible voices. They plucked at our heart-strings with well practised dexterity, coaxing much laughter and mirth out of each bitter-sweet and well modulated note.
Nathan Imboden too played his role as Shakespeare well - with much humour, yet dignified command. His finely-chiselled features and compelling characteristics, his carriage and gestures, were all reminiscent of a bygone era. His extraordinary voice captivated us all, as did his dance movements. I have little doubt that we will be seeing a lot more of him within the thespian circles of Colombo.

A bouquet

The end result was a very well co-ordinated, insistently happy play, an undeniably attractive package, a seamless mixture of comic yet clever thrills and spills.

Less than two hours later, the play was over and the audience was on its feet clapping on and on for the very talented Director, Feroze Kamardeen, who not only had the last word in a well-staged finale and curtain call, but who, it now appears, was solely responsible for the writing of this magnificent piece! Don’t take my word for it, just check out the anagram – Mark Eaden and Fazer Hoesh!

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