Hamlet

Mon 5th – Sat 24th March 2012

reviews

Xandra Burns

at 11:56 on 6th Mar 2012

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How many times have we seen Shakespeare set in a random decade to illustrate the “timelessness” that his plays carry? Shakespeare lends itself to experiment: the audience is familiar enough with the plays that production teams feel at liberty to run off with them, or indeed feel obliged to do something crazy to make their production unique. Sometimes - most times - this is done arbitrarily and ineffectively. The Factory, in collaboration with Creation Theatre Company, surpasses the random-modern-setting-and-style trend and takes on the radical task of truly representing what Shakespeare can do: their rendition of “Hamlet” is not only timeless, but spaceless, prop-less, faceless - at least in the beginning.

“The king is dead. What happens next will be different every night.” Intriguing, right? And not quite accurate. “What happens,” in the sense of the story, is pretty much the only thing that is the same every night. In his Director’s note Tim Carroll writes: “every factor which I could make variable (except the text), I did.” The distribution of roles is determined by audience member duels of Rock Paper Scissors. Audience members are encouraged to bring props, which the actors will then incorporate into their performances. The actors do not bow, but clap along with the audience at the play’s end. It is truly a collaborative process among playwright, director, actors, and audience members.

This process is not unique to this production - in fact, to a certain extent, it applies to every production - but here it is brought to our attention. The Factory claims that its goal is to get us thinking, and this it does. The production is so different to what we as audience members are used to, and yet, it is also the same, just amplified. As audience members entering a theatre, we are used to asking “What have the actors prepared for us?” when this production modifies the question to “What will we all create together?” Perhaps this is the question we can ask more often. Yes, this “Hamlet” is unique in that the audience literally supplies the props. The space of the Blackwell’s Norrington Room is lit enough that we can see the faces, expressions, reactions of the audience members seated in the round. We are curious to see which props people have chosen to bring, wondering about the stories behind the objects and their owners. There is no hierarchy in this space - if anything, the audience has the power. They determine the cast. Their props bring visuals to the metaphors.

What then, in this collaborative process, is the role of the critic? Besides supplying a penguin that will come to symbolize the Prince Hamlet? My notes are full of insights rather than specific criticisms. The details become irrelevant. I would have trouble praising specific actors even if I wanted to, since the program lists the entire ensemble, but the roles are not determined until 7:45 each night. I can point out the quirks that this particular show included - such as the Ghost’s toilet paper scarf, Hamlet’s soap-rubbing routine, a giant puppet acting as Ophelia as Polonius quotes her - but these are only examples of one way the play can go. It will be different every night.

My job is to give you a sense of what this play is like and an opinion on whether you should see it. It is unlike any other Shakespeare I have seen . It is more of an experiment than a show, an exercise rather than a performance - but the actors are so deliberate, their lines so fluid and clear, that it is definitely qualifies as performance overall. Being a fan of Creation Theatre Company for many years, I have come to expect this level of professionalism from their productions, and it is certainly there - just with an added freshness that is impossible to capture so vividly and candidly without this premise.

We are so familiar with Shakespeare that this kind of experiment works. We can place his plays in different settings because we are grounded in familiar text. A potential downside of our familiarity with “Hamlet” is that we are prepared to judge and compare each new interpretation. We wonder how they are going to perform a certain line or scene, and, to a certain extent, have our own preconceptions of what is the “correct” interpretation. This “Hamlet” overcomes that setback. While conventional performances have decisions to make for their entire run, we understand that these decisions are made spontaneously each night. This production recognizes that this is no “correct” way to perform “Hamlet,” that instead each interpretation is valid in that it sparks thought and debate. “Hamlet” more so than any other Shakespeare play lends itself to this concept, as it involves themes of madness, theatre, and identity. Casting is as interchangeable as kings. This production is so suitably set in the heart of Blackwell’s, the hundreds of books reinforcing the possibility of exploration and interpretation examined by the performance. Literature and theatre are united, reading and interpreting made relevant. This production is for anyone interested in theatre, or for anyone who wants to understand what is interesting about theatre. If you’re looking for answers, you won’t be told them, but the performances might help you find them for yourself.

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Stan Pinsent

at 02:06 on 7th Mar 2012

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So here’s the idea: "Hamlet," performed in a bookshop, with the actors’ roles decided randomly on the day and with all props provided by the audience. Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy is stripped down and reinvented night by night; what could possibly go wrong?

Everyone was asked before the show to bring with them ‘an object’ to be involved in the production, and no sooner was everyone was sat down a veritable treasure trove of various artifacts began to emerge: a solar powered calculator, a soft boiled egg, a sexy earring holder, an electric disco ball; I felt put to shame clutching my plastic clothes peg. The plain-clothed actors, who I’d assumed were audience members, started recruiting people from the crowd to play Rock Paper Scissors to determine who played which parts and, rather inauspiciously, the action began.

Just after the freshly chosen Hamlet arrives on stage, he sights the ghostly apparition of his dead father; a bald, twenty-something man clambering on top of bookshelves, laying police tape behind him. In the next scene, a Russian doll is used as an allegory for responsibility and much later, Hamlet stabs Ophelia’s father to death by wrapping a ball of wool around his arms. The innovative use of props was a little hit-and-miss, but it was worth for those few gems; some poor person’s toy plane crushed underfoot in a fit of theatrical rage, a roaring toy dinosaur doubling as a vial of poison. By the end, the cast had truly got their groove on and things turned really interpretational, with Hamlet’s swordfight fought with books on logic, and the poisoned chalice replaced by a wooden mannequin.

Clearly, Creation Theatre Company thrive on the unexpected; they leave everything to chance. Without costume, scenery or consistent props they set out to perform Shakespeare’s longest, most convoluted piece. And they do a pretty good job, with some of their quirky twists providing insight into the endless possibilities of theatre. To truly judge a performance like this, you’d have to go on two nights and play spot the difference, although I guess that’s the really great thing; if you love this play there’s no shame in going again; It’ll never be twice the same.

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Comments

Claire Morley; 6th Mar 2012; 12:17:27

The Factory makes Shakespeare, Hamlet, the theatre fresh, new and exciting. Sometimes what they do works, sometimes it doesn't. I'd really recommend going to see them (student standing tickets are £2 for the next couple of days and £10 afterwards) and more than once if you can. This was the fourth time I've seen their Hamlet and it wasn't the best but it was still enjoyable. Go if you haven't seen Hamlet before, go if you've read it so many times that you're sick of it.

Xandra Burns; 6th Mar 2012; 13:56:35

I definitely want to see it again. How were the other shows you've seen different/better?

Claire Morley; 7th Mar 2012; 10:03:53

Well I saw them in a proscenium arch theatre but they still used the space well and acted in the auditorium for example. It depends on what props are brought of course, my favourite was a butternut squash that was thrown between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then force fed to one of the characters. Also it's very much down to who plays Hamlet. Once I saw it when a woman played the role which was really good and another time, it was a different Hamlet each act until the end when they all played him. Sometimes they also have a challenge from the audience/director to play a certain scene a certain way. I think the opening night in Blackwells was fairly tame compared to what they can do but if you do get the chance to see them again, do!

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