El Alto

Chela de Ferrari – Peru

A Year of Hamlet

The collaborative work between the actors and the production team of Hamlet at Teatro La Plaza represented an achievement not only on stage, but above all on a personal level.

A still image from Hamlet. A performer stands on a stage in front of a teal armchair wearing a yellow t-shirt and blue jeans, with a heavy looking crown perched atop their head. They are facing the audience with their mouth open, as if caught in the middle of a passionate yell. Behind them is a large screen filled with multiple depictions of Shakespearian actors from movies and theatre.

Shakespeare’s plays have always interested me. Every time I thought of my next project, the idea of doing a new version of Hamlet came up. However, I always discarded this possibility for the same reason: I could not find the actor for the main protagonist. Until I met Jaime Cruz.

Jaime has worked for more than three years as an usher in La Plaza’s theatre hall, guiding people to their seats and selling programmes. However, his actual dream was to appear on stage as an actor, as he once shared at a staff meeting. Because of his comment, I invited him to have a coffee. His wish was to act on stage, and mine was to do Hamlet. This project, which had remained dormant for several years, was awakened by the new possibilities that an actor like Jaime could bring to the meaning of Hamlet’s words.

A provocation? Undoubtedly. But one that challenged us with the big question, “to be, or not to be”. For people who are disregarded and cannot find a space where they are taken into consideration, what does it mean “to be”? The proposal aimed to question the myths built around Down syndrome and to recontextualise the existential question asked by Hamlet.

Traditionally, the weight of the main character falls on the iconic figure of a “great actor”. This version is composed of eight performers: seven actors with Down syndrome and an actress with an intellectual disability. The message of an individual is here voiced by a group.

During the creation process several questions arose. How do people with cognitive difficulties approach the complexity of Hamlet, his existential questions, and retain his essential aspects? To what extent do the actors in this version have the need to represent themselves through Hamlet? Does this need to be the case for the project to make sense? Can they adapt the work and generate their own narratives through Hamlet? Today, we can answer those questions and say that they have developed their own narrative based on Shakespeare’s text. On the one hand, they take the meaning of the words in the play as a cohesion tool. On the other hand, we have experienced events like the one brought forth by Ximena, one of the actresses. One morning she burst into the middle of an exercise to reveal an existential anxiety: “I no longer know who I am. In the morning I wake up and wonder who I am. Inside, I live two lives. A life that wants to be a neurotypical person and a life that prefers Down syndrome”. Both Ximena and her colleagues have appropriated Hamlet’s words to give them a new meaning.

There are also questions that we leave open. Can our actors, with their own agency, aesthetics and conceptual preferences, co-exist with the theatre management team’s structure? How do we showcase the value of those aesthetics that, according to some mainstream conventions, detract from the performance? I am referring to features such as difficulty in vocalizing, diction problems, pronounced stuttering, tense times, blank moments, and overacting. Can we find other ways of representation?

Theatre rehearsals typically take two to three months. Hamlet took us a whole year of work, because both my processes and those of the actors are slower than others. This was also due to the nature of the project. The play being written as we went along, it was essential for us all to live a time of exploration, research, and collection of materials. The play is a fabric woven with Shakespeare’s text and the actors’ lives. From Hamlet we borrowed the scenes, phrases, monologues and characters that connect with the interests, claims, experiences, realities and reflections of the actors. We use Hamlet. And we do it in total freedom.

A year ago, when we asked the actors “Why do you do theatre?”, their answers puzzled us: “Because I want to be famous”. A couple of days ago we asked them the question again. Their responses were, “To represent people like us” and “To be able to say what I think”.

The life of each member of the production and direction team has been enriched as much, or more, than the actors’. The exchange has confronted us with our own condition and with the question of who we are.

A black and white portrait of an actor in Teatro La Plaza's Hamlet. He is wearing round glasses with a crown on his head and is looking straight at the camera with a serious and deep look on his face.
A still image from Hamlet. A performer stands with their feet apart, swinging some kind of weapon. In the background, a large screen is showing images of a crowd, fists in the air, cheering.

Images from Hamlet, produced by Teatro de la Plaza, Peru. Courtesy from Teatro La Plaza.

Chela de Ferrari is a Theatre Director and the Founder and Artistic Director of Teatro La Plaza, in Lima, Peru.