Back to the theatre last evening for the first performance of the final production in La Boite’s 2011 Indie program. It’s The Danger Ensemble’s The Hamlet Apocalypse directed and designed by Steven Mitchell Wright. It’s had previous seasons in Melbourne and Adelaide, and it’s now back home. Last night was the first time I’ve caught a piece from The Danger Ensemble and I’m very glad I did. Its intelligent, gutsy theatricality and complexity will please some and, just possibly, repel others. Whatever you do, leave your preconceptions in the foyer. As the website has it
The Hamlet Apocalypse is a dsytopia of the now generation, a silent party, a desperate plea, a rambunctious prayer… Seven actors stage Hamlet on the eve of the apocalypse. As the line between fiction and reality blurs; the actors, their characters and their worlds collide and are distilled into the simplest of human states. It’s about the power of death and the value of life.
The sheer energy of the ensemble at work and of the production itself is mightily affecting. Certainly, you cannot hide in the usual safety of the dark auditorium. Dane Alexander‘s sound and Ben Hughes‘ lighting are terrific and cruel! From the moment you enter you are caught in the spotlight – literally. The show gets its claws into you and, from this point until the final blackout, you are jumping in your seat. For 75 minutes there is no exit, no retreat for audience or performers …
The theatrical intelligence and driving engine at the heart of this work is its amalgamation of theatrical ideas. None of them of itself is especially innovative but, when taken together and woven through with the group’s particular aesthetic and performance skills, it makes for a riveting experience. Chris Beckey‘s dramaturgy should be acknowledged here.
Take (arguably) the greatest play ever written, break down that fourth wall, set up a play within a play – well, it’s going to be a play within a play within a play for at least one scene in Hamlet, isn’t it – confine a group of individuals within a space, add a malevolent force out there – new gods, old ones, death, techno-apocalypse, the end of the play? It doesn’t matter really. Ratchet up the tension with an inbuilt count-down clock, keep wrong-footing the audience by switching from actor to character and back again – and let the chaos rip.
The Danger Ensemble’s The Hamlet Apocalypse is unashamedly, wildly theatrical. It’s first-rate, challenging theatre at full-tilt. Experience it.
And rip it does. Hamlet the text, Hamlet as the iconic, blue-ribbon cultural artefact that we all know so well is not so much deconstructed as disembowelled. I swear the set reminded me of nothing so much as Dexter Morgan‘s portable, plastic shrouded kill zones; the humour at work in Hamlet Apocalypse is just as blackly and bleakly subversive as that found in Jeff Lindsay’s stories and the cult television series.
The Hamlet Apocalypse reflects many of the concerns found in one of contemporary theatre’s more pervasive aesthetic forms. Whilst not the first artistic movement to be focussed on the cruel and grotesque, decay and death, the post-WWII Japanese dance form known as Butoh (The Dance of Darkness) has resonated strongly with many western theatre makers. Butoh, what some scholars see as a fusion of German Expressionism and traditional Japanese forms, had developed in the work of some contemporary dance practitioners in the decades following the nuclear holocausts in Japan. During the past 60 years, Butoh has continued to develop with significant effect upon physical theatre practitioners within Japan and around the world.
Traditional Japanese art has long revered the ‘strange beauty’ in the unconventional, whilst the terror of annihilation matched by the beauty of human endurance is found in most Butoh-inspired work. You can’t miss the reflection of this aesthetic in The Hamlet Apocalypse – in the ruthlessness of its lighting and sound, the joy and playfulness in the midst of terror and in reaction to it, and in the controlled and chaotic movement patterns of the performers. The actors spray and spit wine and water creating an unholy or, perhaps, a holy mess in celebration of humanity. Then there are the constant clouds of dust which trickle in a stream at first from above to coat and create the dead King Hamlet, but it comes back again and again rising into the air as actors speak and move about. It is a constant reference to death or maybe even radiation fallout. By the way, Georgina Blythe‘s costumes, which we watch the performers add at the start of the play within the play, are just terrific – beautiful, decaying wrecks of adornment.
The ensemble of seven performers (Katrina Cornwell, Mark Hill, Robbie O’Brien, Noa Rotem, Polly Sará, Dave Sleswick, and Peta Ward) is wonderfully diverse; as individuals they have strong and distinctive stage presence. Physical prowess and confidence are signal strengths of the ensemble which, in this production, are exploited via bodies in repose and response, in movement and in extremis – unfolding and unravelling the work’s characters, its narrative and themes.
Whilst I enjoyed the physicality of the performance, I was less impressed by the vocal work of the ensemble which, at times, seemed disengaged from the performers’ bodies. Underpowered voices and line dropouts, especially by the ‘character as actor,’ spoiled the intended subversion of the spoken text. In order to strengthen the undoubted physical expertise of the group, I’d urge the ensemble to engage with voice coaching as rigorous as their physical work obviously has been.
The Hamlet Apocalypse plays as part of the 2011 La Boite Indie season at The Roundhouse until 10th September. Details on the website.