Saturday, February 16, 2013

Hamlet: A History

Hamlet: A History runs at the Phoenix Theatre in Coniston from February 8-23.

So I didn’t go to see Hamlet: A History intending to write a review of it, but OH MY GOD I need to talk about it. This is one of the most bizarre, ridiculous, self-indulgent interpretations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. I probably still wouldn’t have reviewed it, but then I saw in the blurb on the Phoenix Theatre’s website that they’re tailoring this production for Year 12 students studying Hamlet for the HSC, and that gave me serious side eye. If I was a Year 12 student, then this would probably be the most unhelpful production I could see EVER.

Let’s start with the adaptation. The kindest thing I can say about it is that it is experimental. It doesn’t work. At all. I’m a grad student in English lit and I'm trained as a Renaissance scholar - so, basically, I know Hamlet back to front, inside out, upside down, any direction you’d like to name - and I was confused, so I shudder to think how any school students who see this production are doing. Shakespeare’s text has been dismembered. All the pieces have been mixed up with excerpts from speeches from famous orators (seriously – there’s a bit where they take Barack Obama’s speech on the death of Osama bin Laden, bleep out the names and voiceover in names from Hamlet), incredibly pointless movement sequences, multimedia, and original filler dialogue. Then the whole thing’s been stitched back together like Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not talking Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster here, the one that monologues eloquently for 37 pages about the nature of humanity. I’m talking about the Boris Karloff monster that shambles about going, “Braaaaaaaaains! Braaaaaaaaaains!” (There is a whole bit where everyone seems to be zombies, so this is a particularly apt comparison.)

From the director’s note:

Hamlet: A History is all about reality. Should we trust what we are seeing? Who’s [sic] reality is this? Where is the truth? Authors die, interpretations differ, times change, opinions are personalised. Can history ever be considered stationary?

...what did Hamlet want me to see? Of course Hamlet would want me to see him as this victim and hero! What if what I had seen earlier in life was created by Hamlet, for Hamlet and about Hamlet? In essence, what if this was all a fantasy, a misinterpretation of truth?”

Look, Hamlet is a lot of things, but an unreliable narrator? I don’t think so. For all the complexity of the language in Hamlet, the plot is pretty simple: Hamlet’s uncle has murdered his father and married his mother, and Hamlet is understandably pretty upset about this. He spends most of the play procrastinating and being mean to his girlfriend while he works on his convoluted plan for revenge. He has his own special brand of crazy, but outright delusion...? Not so much.

 In this version? Hamlet is a patient in a mental institution. So is Ophelia. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are played by one actor, in a sort of Gollum-esque way. Claudius is the doctor who has taken over the hospital (beating out "Dr Fortinbras" for the position), and Hamlet basically invents this whole story wherein his dad has been killed. Or something. It’s hard to tell when you’re distracted by scenes where the lights suddenly go all red and half the cast pick up kitchen implements and march around pretending to be soldiers.

Basically, what this show is doing is taking the ultimate cop out – AND THEN IT WAS ALL A DREAM – and applying it to Hamlet. Why? I have no idea. As far as I could tell, it was so they could do wacky scenes where everyone is OMG so cray-cray! Or maybe it was so they could indulge in a bit of meta-ness – there’s one scene where Ruby, an original character (yes, there's an original character), comes to visit Hamlet. They talk about how when they were at uni, they studied this play. In it, there was this guy, and his uncle totally killed his dad and married his mum. It was by... Shakespeare. I WONDER WHAT IT COULD BE. (I don’t think there’s a bigger self-indulgence than being meta for no reason. Suffice to say, no reason was in evidence here.) Also, Ruby was a stripper, because Hamlet was totally lacking one of those.

Oh, and Polonius appears to be played by Facebook. Just ‘cause.

I can’t imagine what any Year 12 students who came to see this for HSC study purposes must be thinking. I can only hope they thought, “wow... that was weird,” and then went and watched the Branagh version or something. (Incidentally, excerpts from the Branagh version turn up in the “to be or not to be” multimedia sequence, in case you were wondering.) I don’t review a lot of community theatre and I wasn’t going to review this, but the fact that they’re trying to market it as a study resource is something I found profoundly irritating. There is nothing in here that would help a Year 12 student understand Hamlet better. In a best case scenario, the fact that it confused the shit out of them might make them go back to the actual text and think about it some more? (God, I hope none of them writes an essay in which Ruby the stripper turns up.)  The BUT WHAT IF IT WAS ALL IN HAMLET’S HEAD conceptual approach makes zero sense, and the stylistic elements in this show... well, some of them were very entertaining. For all the wrong reasons. I’m looking at you, weird gender-bending Hamlet/Ophelia voiceover sequence. And also you, random multimedia sequence of man screaming. And I can’t forget you, green strobe-lit dance sequence to Where’s Your Head At?. You’re burned onto my brain.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Dreams in White

I reviewed Griffin Theatre's Dreams in White over at Australian Stage. You can read my thoughts here. (Spoilers: I liked it A LOT.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

This Heaven

I reviewed Belvoir St's This Heaven over at Australian Stage. Check out what I thought here. (Shorter review: this show is incredible and incendiary and important and you need to see it. Now.)

Friday, February 8, 2013


Milkmilklemonade runs at the New Theatre from February 5-March 2. By Josh Conkel, directed by Melita Rowston.

Milkmilklemonade is at once fantastical and realistic, funny and moving. It is a show with its own language, one that is quite difficult to acclimate to at first. It is a theatrical language, a melodramatic language, a performative language, one which exposes the problem at the heart of the play: how to be yourself when people are telling you that you should be someone else.

Our hero is Emory (Mark Dessaix), a fifth grade boy who lives on a chicken farm with his dying stuck-in-her-ways grandmother (Pete Nettrell). Emory likes dolls and singing and dancing, dreaming of entering a major pageant-style competition with his Barbie Starlene (Leah Donovan, who also plays several other roles) and his best friend, talking chicken Linda (Sarah Easterman). His grandmother, on the other hand, thinks he should do more stereotypically male things. The other key figure in Emory's life is Elliot (Kieran Foster), sometimes a bully, sometimes a friend, a boy who, despite his aggressive insistence on his own masculinity, loves playing house with Emory and fantasises about going to the prom.

In her groundbreaking work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler talks about the problems of gender and performativity. I won't quote her, because her prose is some of the most dense and impenetrable I have ever encountered, but essentially, she argues that gender is not innate but is performed, forcing people into rigid roles that might not necessarily suit them. We see a classic case of this in milkmilklemonade. Unable to adequately perform the masculine role that his grandmother wants him to, Emory escapes into a fantasy world where he can perform the way he wants to. Sometimes he is co-opted into Elliot's dreamworld, queering the domestic fantasy, exposing more problems with gender performance. According to his grandmother, it is his duty to become a stereotypical man. This is horrifying to him, particularly when read alongside the inexorable destiny of the chickens on his farm, which is to die horribly in a monstrous machine. Emory must find a way to perform like he wants to – to create his own theatrical language for interpreting the world –or his identity, his self, will perish.

Milkmilklemonade could have been a big mess. There's always a danger of taking it too far with this kind of wacky, surrealist humour, of letting the absurdity take over the show like an avalanche. While I suspect the show might still be a bit much for some audience members, Melita Rowston has showed remarkable restraint in her deft direction of this piece. By keeping it carefully controlled, Rowston has allowed the wackiness of it to be funny and absorbing without losing sight of the real melancholy at its heart.

While I was a little apprehensive in the early stages, I ended up really enjoying milkmilklemonade(though I was never quite clear on where the title came from). It's at once completely absurd and a thoughtful commentary on the problems of performing identity. It features some great performances and some really clever direction. Definitely the best play I've seen starring a giant chicken!


Thursday, February 7, 2013

School Dance

School Dance ran at the Sydney Theatre Company from January 11-February 3, and at Merrigong from February 7-February 9. By Matthew Whittet, directed by Rosemary Myers.

The 1980s are a special decade for me. Not just because I was born then (I was) but because of the memories I have. A lot of people can’t remember their early childhood, but there’s one thing I remember really clearly from mine. The music. My mother was an aerobics teacher, and she used to take me along to her classes when she couldn’t find anyone to watch me. I have a stupid amount of 1980s dance music uploaded in my brain. I don’t think about it a lot, but when I do, it always makes me smile. This is the place that School Dance took me to.

Baudrillard has this idea that things that make us nostalgic allow us to effectively become tourists in our own lives. Like any tourist, we go and see the cool things – in the case of the 1980s, it’s the music and the clothes and the whole retro enterprise – but we gloss over other stuff. It’s really interesting thinking about this alongside School Dance. Sure, on the surface it seems like fun and games and glitter, but there is darkness beneath, very real fears that drive the three boys at its heart – a drunk father, a terrifying bully, and the fear of literally fading into the background forever. It might be a tourist trip, but it’s also a quest. School Dance is at once a relatively realistic take on teenage angst, a surreal piece of art, and a John Hughes movie. It has just the right mix of nostalgia and drama, humour and heartfeltedness, irony and sincerity. It’s at once hilarious and humorous, a tribute and a message.

School Dance is the story of Matt (Matthew Whittet) and his friends Luke (Luke Smiles) and Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade). They are all losers (of different breeds, as the hilariously meta voiceover reminds us). Matt is so desperate to ask popular girl Hannah Ellis (Amber McMahon, who plays several different female roles in the show) to dance and so equally convinced that she will say no that he begins to become invisible. He, his friends, and an unlikely invisible ally (also Amber McMahon) must overcome dangers untold and hardships unnumbered to get back to the school dance, where Matt must finally step up, be brave, and pursue his desires. Also, there is a unicorn (Amber McMahon again).

The teen genre is often written off for being simplistic, but School Dance clearly exposes that this is not the case. It is a deceptively complicated piece of theatre – beneath all the music and the laughs, there are emotional layers waiting to be peeled back. The invisibility and centrality of Matt highlights the fact that the loser is often the hero in the typical 1980s piece, and his journey shows that just because he is beaten down he is not automatically heroic – Matt must earn his payoff. He must go through a transformative journey to realise what he really wants at that school dance, against a backdrop of glitter curtains, mogwai, and truly radical dancing.

I loved School Dance. I have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980s in me, and I can’t see how anyone who didn’t have a soft spot for the decade of shoulder pads and Martha and the Muffins wouldn’t really enjoy this show. In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym talks about nostalgia as “a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values” (8). She also writes that “irony is not opposed to nostalgia” (354). School Dance strikes the perfect balance between the two. It creates the 1980s as an enchanted world, one in which our heroes must go on a quest, and it laughs at itself at the same time. It is at once a fairytale, a Dali painting, a period drama, and a Spandau Ballet concert. Most of all, it is enormous fun, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who even vaguely remembers the 80s. And anyone who went to high school, really – that kind of thing transcends decades and becomes universal.

(Sidebar: Gold by Spandau Ballet is one of the songs I use when I’m in a tough place with my thesis and need to get motivated. I blast it loud and pretend I’m in an inspirational montage from an 80s movie. School Dance made that fantasy that much more potent. Thanks, Windmill Theatre!)