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So shall you hear Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, And, in this upshot, purposes mistook Fall'n on th' inventors' heads. All this can I Truly deliver (V.ii 382-8).
In 1947 the first Afrikaans production of a Shakespeare play, Hamlet, took place at His Majesty's Theatre in Johannesburg. Andre Huguenet, who played the title role, drew an analogy between Hamlet's situation and that of an Orange Free State farmer's son who goes off to study at Stellenbosch University. On his return home, he discovers that his father has died, his mother has married his uncle, and he has lost his farm. "That's my piece of earth," he said, "and I'd fight for it to the death" (Neethling-Pohl interview). Coming only a year before the defeat of Jan Smuts and his United Party in the 1948 general election, this production clearly articulated the ideology of Afrikaner nationalism by constructing the South African political situation as the struggle for "their land" against the English, the Blacks, the Coloureds, the Indians, and any other would-be "usurpers". Most Afrikaners now perceived Smuts, the ex-Boer War general, as a collaborator with the British imperialists, while acclaiming Daniel Malan and his National Party as the rightful heirs to Boer republicanism. (1) Smuts was now the Claudius who must be deposed for a new "purified" Afrikaner state to emerge.
As one would expect, Afrikaans productions of Shakespeare during the apartheid era reflected Afrikaner ideological and cultural values. In most cases the primary aim, conscious or unconscious, was to validate Afrikaner culture by demonstrating that the fundamental tenets of Afrikaner ideology could be defined in terms of the world's greatest drama. In short, they offered a self-conscious presentation of Afrikaner power on display. An examination of the differences between the 1947 production and the next Afrikaans presentation of Hamlet in 1973 reveals, in the complex interplay between culture and politics, an "evolution" in the Afrikaner consciousness of their national identity and relations with other groups in South Africa. Thus the state of display did not remain constant but informed and was informed by the subsequent production. The full significance of the 1947 Hamlet did not become apparent until after the 1973 production; moreover, the full significance of both Hamlets may await a future production. Such displays of power might well be betrayed by the very thing they attempt to order--history itself.
From the establishment of British colonial rule in the early nineteenth century until the end of World War II, English-speaking whites held a virtual monopoly on Shakespeare productions in South Africa. They looked down on all the other racial and language groups in the country as inferior. By appropriating the glories of British culture, they found it easy to dismiss the powerless and poverty-stricken Blacks (and to a slightly lesser extent the Coloureds and Indians) as primitive savages. The Afrikaners, however, were regarded with peculiar distaste because their white skins and European forebears made them inevitable partners in the power structure of the country. Indeed, after Union in 1910, Afrikaners became the dominant political partners by virtue of their greater numbers. But they were nonetheless regarded as a boorish and uncultured people, their language as a bastardized Dutch not worth learning, and their politics as crudely anti-British and overtly racist. At the end of World War II, the English-speaking whites were dazzled by the glorious Allied victory in which they had played a part, and proud of the role of Jan Smuts, their anglophile, albeit Afrikaner, Prime Minister, field marshal in the British Army, ally of Winston Churchill, world statesman, and co-drafter of the preamble to the United Nations charter. They looked on the swelling ranks of the Afrikaner supporters of the National Party with special contempt for their putative pro-Nazi sentiments, but remained quite blind to the electoral disaster about to take place, blithely assuming that Smuts's wartime prestige made his political position unassailable. (2)
Against this background, the first Afrikaans Shakespeare production took place in 1947. African Consolidated Theatres had just built His Majesty's Theatre in Johannesburg and were seeking a prestige production to follow the opening pantomime and opera season. They felt that the first full-length production of a Shakespeare play in Afrikaans would be the ideal project, Hamlet the perfect play.
The leading Afrikaner actors from around the country were engaged, and they threw themselves enthusiastically into the project. Anna Neethling-Pohl, the co-director, who was well known for her unflinching support of Afrikaner nationalism, wrote:
They were one and all together heart-and-soul. I don't know what it was, but we were all aware that something big was on the go. We saw later what it was, but at that time we knew only one thing: that an Afrikaans-speaking company was going to present an Afrikaans translation of a Shakespeare play at His Majesty's and that it must be the best of which we were capable, individually and collectively ... We did not try to improve Shakespeare, we did not try to be "different" or "original", we simply tried to let a living Shakespeare speak, even in a foreign language (Neethling-Pohl 152, 155).
In line with the "traditional" interpretation, Kobus Esterhuysen designed the early seventeenth century costumes and the set, which consisted of three short flights of steps linking different acting areas. By dropping a small curtain or changing the lighting, a new location could be created. Andre Huguenet described it as "a stylistic decor with a Gothic leit-motif" (Huguenet 226).
The interpretation of Hamlet's character, however, belies the notion of a "traditional" approach. Anna Neethling-Pohl told me in a 1985 interview:
Huguenet said to me one day when we started working, "You know if my Mother and father were in the Orange Free State and I were studying at Stellenbosch University and there's a drought and it's dreadful and I can't go home for holidays but suddenly when I do go home after so many months, I find my father's dead and my mother's married my ever-smiling uncle. This is a terrible thing. What about my farm? That's my earth. That's my piece of geography. He's made himself master of my bit of Free State earth, and I'd fight for it to the death." He saw the whole thing as this Dane who wanted his piece of geography, his kingdom. He was a ruthless man wanting his land back. He was also paying back and getting equal with the man who had murdered his father (Neethling-Pohl interview).
Huguenet's interpretation allowed a critique of colonial discourse as a means by which imperial power is constructed and disseminated; ironically, the appropriation of the discourse of the dispossessed colonial subject helped to empower Afrikaner nationalism in its quest to further dispossess black South Africans of their piece of geography. In her autobiography, Mrs. Neethling-Pohl noted:
He thought that the man who wanted to protect his property and validate his right of possession would be acceptable to the Afrikaner. He was right, because that …