Danish danger

The Hamlet Apocalypse (The Danger Ensemble)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

August 9 – 19

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“Hamlet” represents one of the stage’s greatest challenges. The complex work’s sense of reality is shaped by powerful, poetic words and language with some of the most popular lines ever written, and there is the challenge of its duration as the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. The Danger Ensemble’s contemporary performance about an ensemble of actors (Chris Beckey, Caroline Dunphy, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sara, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood) staging the play on the eve of the apocalypse may be much shorter (though still with room for Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and a horse) than its source material, but is as complex as ever as the play unravels and more of the actors’ real-life personal revelations and fears begin to emerge; they have a version of “Hamlet” that they have rehearsed, but as a countdown gets closer to zero the show has to be abridged and personal issues sorted.

Presenting any derivative of “Hamlet” is always going to be a trial of strength. And “The Hamlet Apocalypse” certainly realises its intention of taking the play of ideas to a new and exciting place. Although it is probably best appreciated by those familiar enough with the original text to be able to follow the now-fragmented narrative, this can also work to its disadvantage as the loss of much of the play’s musical language and dramatic poetry is lamented.

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This is a “Hamlet” for the now generation, in which the line between fiction and reality blurs. It’s not an easy transition, however, the experimental work keeps a sense of tragedy in its performers’ breaks of the fourth wall. There is still touch on themes of the power of death and the value of life, but humour too, added to, rather than derived from within the text. Usually it works, such as in a hilarious group ‘imaginary eating’ scene. At other times, however, it is at the expense of key moments and emotional expression, such as when Hamlet’s Act Two share of his descent into worthless melancholy is overshadowed, visually and verbally by a background Claudius and Gertrude spitting wine over each other.

A show of such layering, theatricality and physicality, of course, needs a skilled cast and in this regard there are no weak links. Thomas Hutchins makes for a commanding new King Claudius, second husband to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Caroline Dunphy) in contrast to his constant line-reminder interjections to others as ‘himself’. As the titular Hamlet, Mitch Wood gives a fine performance that provides feel more of frustration than introspection. And Chris Beckey gives a nuanced performance that makes for a memorable visual presence, often absorbed as one with the aesthetic.

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The show’s aesthetics are absorbing thanks to the sophisticated shading of Ben Hughes’ lighting design and Oscar Clark’s detailed, yet versatile costumes. Together, they make early scenes particularly stylistic in the slow-motion sensibility that acts in contrast to the big, hot mess of its conclusion (#inagoodway). Constantly we are reminded that we are watching a play. Indeed, never can the audience relax into the work, especially in the cresendoing chaos of concluding scenes as our attention is torn from ‘character’ to ‘character’ in simultaneous competition for our focus. And while the blinding visual flash and screeching soundscape countdown from ten to one that punctuates proceedings continues as novelty throughout, eliciting disruptive audience responses, this is probably the point.

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“The Hamlet Apocalypse” may be ‘Hamlet but not as you know it’, but it represents all that is interesting about experimental theatre and the essence of Director Steven Mitchell Wright’s characteristic vision, last seen the company’s wicked “Macbeth”.  Its rich all-encompassing aesthetic makes for rewarding theatrical experience. And in celebration of The Danger Ensemble’s ten year anniversary, it is an excellent choice of show for a return season.

Photos c/o – Morgan Roberts Photography

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Desperation, despair and damn good drama

The Seagull (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, The Warehouse

March 3 – 14

“Why do you wear so much black?” 

“I’m in mourning for my life.”

There could perhaps be no better opening line to epitomise the tone of Anton Chekhov’s acclaimed dramatic work. And, in “The Seagull”, one of his greatest plays, the mood is certainly one of despair, even when transported to a rural Australian property.

Now Look Here’s reimagining of the Russian classic certainly presents a fresh take on its famed naturalism, drawing upon its family dysfunction and flawed characters as it brings the work to life within Metro Arts’ cosy Warehouse space. Indeed, when crowded by the dozen strong ensemble, cast, the effect is quite suffocating and confronting, especially for front row audience member recipients of direct eye contact monologues. This emphasises the essence of the work, for in Chekhov, nothing is grand. Yet it would also be wonderful to see the production realised in a more mainstream venue, sans the sometimes crude lighting and backstage distractions that come as consequence of the intimate space.

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“The Seagull” examines the unravelling of a group of family and friends’ desperate, tangled lives. Within the sorrow, however, there is a sense of humour and certain degree of absurdity. The show begins with a play within a play as the sulky, snarky young Kostya (Thomas Hutchins) presents his pretentious, self-indulgent work whose clichéd devices cause derision from his far-from-maternal ‘national treasure’ actress mother Irina (an Artist with a capital A, played by Louise Brehmer). His star is young Nina (Lizzie Ballinger) with whom he is infatuated (oddly gifting to her a dead seagull), but Nina is starstruck by Irina’s new love Boris (Matthew Filkins), a famous novelist who would prefer to spend time alone fishing rather than talking about his work. This is made into a love triangle by Masha (Ayeesha Ash), who is in love with Kostya. Indeed, if it weren’t for Kostya’s moments of madness and ultimate outcome, it could just as easily be fodder for a fabulous Noel-Coward style farce. Himself a doctor by profession, Chekhov was ‘sympathetic, but unsentimental’ in his treatment of what is, essentially, quite banal subject in the lives of ordinary people. But this is the beauty of his work, which speaks in fractured images.

“The Seagull” is a play full of drama, of those whose lives are lived (as Thoreau proclaimed in “Walden”) in quiet desperation. To bring this character driven intent to life on stage, requires tight direction and tremendous performances, and this version has both, making it a damn good drama. As an ensemble, the actors serve the source material well, exhibiting a sense of pre-occupation and selfishness, the motivation for which the text gives little explanation. In particular, Hutchins acquits himself well as Irina’s tormented son Kostya, a playwright prone to despair, presenting a sympathetic portrayal as he tries to cope with the loss of first his mother and then his love to a more successful artist. Kevin Hides also gives a memorable performance as the doctor, Dorn a figure of measured calm in the middle of all of a frenzy of frantic behaviour.

Although Chekhov’s work is masterful in its examination of the human condition, it is natural to be dubious about a modernised version of any classic. This is a worry without merit in the case of this work, which effectively updates the 120 year old text without destroying its anguished foundations. Director, Kate Wild presents audiences with a production that has much to say about dreams, disappointments and despair and even theatre itself (beyond its Shakespearean plot suggestions). As a disillusioned theatre maker Kostya observes about the need for new forms of theatre, “if we can’t find them, we’d be better to have nothing at all”. Thankfully now look here has found it and the Brisbane theatre scene is, accordingly, all the richer.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Seagull

Conversing the fine line

Awkward Conversation

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

November 18 – November 29

There is a fine line between ‘in your face’ and ‘f**ked up’ and it is a line that “Awkward Conversations” sometimes spills over in its presentation of intimate, yet bold works. But what else can be expected from a Week One marathon that begins with two of the most tragically confronting stories from the cannon of classic Greek literature?

First there is “Medea Redux” by Niel LaBute, a reimagined version of the classic tale, told in monologue revelation. The story of a mother who kills her children as means of reeking revenge isn’t the easiest material to make sense of for a modern audience, yet it works, told as it is from Medea’s confession to police tape recorder.

As Medea, Amy Ingram more than does justice to one of the greatest female roles in the theatrical canon. Teetering on the edge of audience empathy throughout she shows not only a heartbroken woman hell-bent on a revenge plot 14 years in the making, but also something of the giddiness of the undying infatuation and naïve innocence that attracted the high school teacher who became her exploitative childhood partner. And while Ingraham does bitter better than anyone, it is her initial vulnerability that is the most memorable aspect of her performance. Squirming, but never really moving beyond the confine of her confessional chair, she reluctantly recalls her story of teenage-hood stolen with the benefit of adult hindsight and it is in these reflections, rather than her story recount in the moment, where La Bute’s script really shines. There is even some well-placed humour mixed in with the shocking statements regarding her murder of her child, however, a plentiful placement of ‘ya’ and dropped g’s at times feels forced and detracts from chances to be caught up in her moments.

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Medea is regarded by many as being a feminist text, due to its sympathetic exploration of being a woman in a patriarchal society and it is interesting to ponder whether the motivation for her crimes matters. Indeed, it is something to prompt consideration long after the show has come to its shocking conclusion, which makes it a perfect inclusion for a curation of theatre works focussed on rattling and reeling audience members through its unflinching subject matter.

And the unspeakable tragedies continue with “Yokastas Redux”, the story of the Oedipus myth reimagined from the point of view of Yokasta, Oedipus’ wife and mother. When it comes to tragedy’s baddest mummas, you can’t go past Yokasta … or can you? (A show highlight is a Jerry Springer style character confrontation, in attempt to answer this.) Classic Greek figures abound and Yokasta features in three self-aware forms (the youngest her, middle ‘chip on her shoulder’ her and older ‘perpetually blissful’ her) so it can be difficult to follow for the uninitiated, hence the need for the ‘Oedipus the King’ cheat sheet that is provided to audience members.

At its core, “Yokastas Redux” is the narrative of a woman who loves her child and the man in her life (specifics of his same-identity aside) and Jane Barry gives a standout performance as the titular character, finally given the chance to clear the air and tell her side of the story. As the swollen-footed boy gifted to her by Zeus for her to teach to be king, Thomas Hutchins is also an imposing figure, aiding in the audience want for more of the story and the change to perhaps see the work developed further into a full-length show.

Dysfunctional family stories continue with “Debris”, the tale of two forsaken children searching for humour in the brutal world of their abandonment in the garbage that is their lives. And humour there is, with many laughs coming from the delivery of everyday lines within such a bleak and shocking story and Katy Cotter engaging in her realisation of child-like Michelle’s persona. The striking opening image, which sees the two protagonists amid a sea of garbage bags, makes for a promising beginning and interest continues as bags are shaped into make-shift props, however, this is a long and repetitive show in need of an edit. Clearly many of those in the sold out Week One marathon audience disagreed. I don’t care who you know in the show, however; to be taking even one photo with flash during a live performance is just plain rude. #whatiswrongwithpeople.

“This Child” is another gritty exploration of family relationships, explored in a volley of varied vignettes between parents and children, each packing an emotional punch, despite their gender blind presentation. Although this aspect is initially distracting, once Reuben Witsenhuysen brings to life a highly-strung mother character, it is soon easily forgotten. Character dynamics are engrained in the dialogue, however, there just needs to be more of it. Long pauses while the performers, all wearing varied basketball uniforms, stand and stare down the audience or chat amongst themselves to the pumping sounds of “Turn Down For What” make an indelible impact, but not always in a positive way.

If the inherent values of good theatre are exploration and challenge as much as entertainment, then “Awkward Conversations” is very good theatre. In bringing ancient work into focus for contemporary society, it certainly gives audiences much to talk about. Although there is little escape from the discomfort of its conversation starters, I don’t know that we would want it any other way.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/metroartsbrisbane/