Bryan Hiles delivers a finely judged performance as Shakespeare’s Hamlet


Bryan Hiles as Hamlet. Photo by Val Adamson

BRYAN Hiles never imagined himself in the role of Hamlet, instead he thought he was more suited to playing Laertes, brother to Ophelia, writes’s ESTELLE SINKINS.

Director, Clare Mortimer, had other ideas. She could definitely see the Durban-based actor playing William Shakespeare’s titular hero and twisted his arm to take on the challenge in Think Theatre’s Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, currently running at the Playhouse Drama Theatre in Durban.

“I was a bit daunted to start with,” Hiles, who also plays Roderigo in the company’s production of Othello, said, “but I’m really enjoying it now and I’m glad I decided to do it.”

Considered to be the Bard’s greatest work, Hamlet centres on themes of death, betrayal, greed, murder and revenge; and asks the audience searching questions, including: Does a good and purposeful life on earth triumph? Are vile and criminal acts always punished? And, what is the purpose of our lives if decency has the same end as treachery?

Mortimer has given the show a contemporary feel, dressing the cast in familiar clothing. The actors also speak the original text using modern language rhythms, which helps the audience to grasp it more quickly.

“In rehearsal we spent a lot of time pulling the lines apart and asking what Shakespeare meant, what a line meant in context of a scene. It helped us to understand the characters a lot more and that, together with the set and costumes makes the play more accessible for the kids. They suddenly discover that it all makes sense,” says Hiles.

The actor delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the young prince, who is haunted by his father’s sudden death and his mother, Gertrude’s over-hasty trip down the aisle with his uncle, Claudius (Michael Gritten).

As the play progresses, he confides his plans to close friend, Horatio. He will, he says, pretend to be mad and thereby expose his uncle’s part in his father’s death. It’s a decision which ultimately has tragic consequences for Hamlet and for those he loves most.

Hiles has been a stalwart member of Think Theatre’s annual schools Shakespeare production for many years, and he believes that giving children the chance to see the plays live on stage can make a huge difference to their understanding of the work.

“Take Hamlet,” he says, “it is not set in a specific time; instead it’s pretty much timeless. And while it may be talking about people in Denmark, the conflict and the themes the play explores could be happening anywhere. The struggles that the characters have are timeless… jealousy, revenge, love… all that stuff happens every day.”

Hiles, Gritten and Mortimer (who plays Gertrude), are joined on stage by regulars, Nhlakanipho Manqele as Horatio, Marc Kay as Laertes, Cara Robert as Ophelia, Darren King as Polonius (advisor to the king and Ophelia and Laertes’ dad), and newcomers, Chris van Rensburg as Rosencrantz, Mpilo ‘Straw’ Nzimande as Guildenstern and Kirsty Ndawo as a travelling actress.

Also in the cast is the wonderfully versatile Rowan Bartlett, who is by turns a travelling actor, a priest, a grave digger and the courtier, Osric. Each of these characters is beautifully realised and provide some much needed humour.

Speaking about the new faces in the cast, Hiles says: “It’s so nice to have new people… I think they have helped to give us all a lot of fresh energy, which we need since we are doing two plays!”

Hamlet is one of several theatre projects which the award-winning actor is tackling this year.  He will also be playing Amos in KickStArt Theatre Company’s production of Kander and Ebb’s musical Chicago at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, and is starring alongside Liesl Coppin in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway play, Rabbit Hole, at the Seabrooke’s Theatre at Durban High School.

Less dramatic, but no less fun to watch, will be his turns in James and the Giant Peach, based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name, and the KickStArt pantomime, Sinbad the Sailor, during which he will be making his first-ever turn as the dame.

For now, however, his energy is focused on delivering the goods in Hamlet and Othello for Think Theatre, for as the Bard so rightly says: ‘The play’s the thing…’

The Shakespeare double bill for schools is being staged at the Playhouse Drama Theatre until March 24 (shows are Mondays to Fridays at 9 am and 12 pm), but there is a one-off public performance of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark in the Playhouse Drama Theatre in Durban on Wednesday, March 1 at 7pm. I urge you to get tickets.

Tickets are R120 with concessions for students and pensioners. Book at Computicket.

Performances of Hamlet and Othello will also be given in Richards Bay on March 22 and Port Shepstone on March 23, and at the University of Johannesburg from May 8 to 19 and at the Brooklyn Theatre in Pretoria from May 22 to 26.

School bookings are through Doreen Stanley on 033 343 4884 or 084 556 0668 or via email


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