Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reviews: Corpse of Hamlet; If You Lived Here...; Solipsis

One of my favourite phrases: "So now then". Each word in it is packed with possibility. Whoever thought of putting them together is amazing.


By Mutation Theatre. Trades Hall, ends Sunday.

If some 16th version of Parky had asked Shakespeare which of his characters would have the most enduring impact on 400 years of theatre, he probably would have said Coriolanus or Pericles or Titus Andronicus because all of their names are a bit rude-sounding and Bill was pretty much the Elizabethan Benny Hill. This is corroborated by the original titles of many of his plays: Carry On Up the Canal, Windsor Wives Gone Wild and Henry IV: Assignment Miami Beach.

But if you’d asked the real author of his plays (Kit Marlowe) you’d get a different response. Marlowe would have said Hamlet because Marlowe was a sooky baby, but Marlowe would also have been right because Marlowe was always right. Even though more people today have probably seen some version of Romeo and Juliet than a full production (or film) of Hamlet, the Dane is still that great Everest that all serious young actors aspire to take a crack at one day or another. This is a pity since Hamlet is generally the least interesting of Shakespeare’s leads and has been freakin’ done to death a million times over.

This is part of the beauty of Mutation Theatre’s current effort The Corpse of Hamlet, and by beauty I of course mean problem. It begins with Bill, a guy who claims to have been there when Hamlet died and who has lived 400 years watching actors donning his dead corpse and paying disrespect to the guy. This is an intriguing beginning, hinting at cursed immortality of figures like the Biblical Cain or the Wandering Jew; framing things within a nice pomo self-reflexivity about the death of tragedy; and promising an investigation of the legacy of Hamlet in theatre history, rather than just trying to wear the dead corpse himself.

It doesn’t really live up to this promise, though. The vague narrative is driven by the journey of this Bill fella from an undying and unchanging Hell to some kind of redemption, but the show’s playfulness also makes it very difficult to follow. Sometimes Bill becomes Hamlet, sometimes he appears a deluded young actor who thinks he’s Hamlet, sometimes he seems completely unlocatable. He sings songs, converses with an overpowering God-like figure, performs snatches of text from Hamlet. There are some very fine sequences: one in which male suicide is discussed, plus an ironic recurring motif in which scenes end with fantasies of murder which reveal the essentially juvenile aspect of Bill/Hamlet. But there are other scenes that aren’t necessary. We’re treated to not one but two elongated sequences of dressing and undressing. I came to a show with the cool title of “The Corpse of Hamlet,” not “The Changing Rooms at Roger David”.

Patrick McCarthy devised and performs solo in the piece, which explains some of the lack of perspective that’s common in such works. McCarthy’s company has pulled off some very highly-regarded works in the past couple of years, but this one would benefit from further development and focus. There’s a good show in here, but it’s still wearing the corpse of something else.


By I'm Trying To Kiss You. Season ended.

This excellently-named show from an excellently-named new company tackles the age old question of what a person should do when they wake up in a strange house after a big party with no memory of the night before and only a crazy woman to help you piece together the jigsaw. In my experience, the answer to that question is this: when she offers to make you a cup of tea and then just proceeds to throw a soggy roll of toilet paper at you, politely make your exit and just consider the night a write-off.

A girl waking up and then having a wet dunny roll flung at them isn’t really enough to justify an hour of theatre, though, so this play introduces a few more elements. Crazy lady slowly reveals some truly horrible events from the night which hangover lady may or may not have caused; there are intimations that this isn’t a real conversation at all but something more metaphysical; there’s an exciting bit with a water bottle that contains vodka.

Everyone involved throws themselves into this show with gusto, and most are between 20-25. It sort of shows – the space between what they’re aiming for and what they achieve is always apparent, and while the narrative doesn’t necessarily unfold in a predictable way, there are only a few options that seem available for its trajectory and it dutifully sticks to these. It doesn’t aim too high, which is both good and bad.

One technical quibble I had with the show was the performances, which were both independently strong but lacked something when matched together. The character who Knows All is what an acting teacher would call a high status character – she has power over the poor girl who just wants to know what happened. But usually a high status character doesn’t need to lord it all over the lower status folk, because they already they have that power. In this piece she’s acting as if she’s the one depending on the other for validation – I realise this actually makes sense by the end of the piece, but it’s a dynamic that seems initially jarring and doesn’t alter throughout the show. When you compare it to something like a Pinter play, which this is very close to, you can see how power relations can be all the more chilling when they aren’t about flouting power but are about its absence of warning signs, the way emotional violence can be casual and seem effortless.

Anyway, on with the show.


By Spill Collective. Season ended.

Some of the I’m Trying to Kiss You folks had a hand in this piece at fortyfivedownstairs, too. It’s a very different beast: more of a performance art thing (which nobody says anymore – live art has taken over there, though that’s a very troubled and abused term too which isn’t necessarily appropriate here). Solipsis basically consists of a big bubble hanging from the ceiling in which a creepy post-human dude dwells, and five mutant apocalyptic figures who hang around the outside of the bubble. There’s some really great sound art, a few projected images, an impressive and organic set design and a bit of talking and movement. I couldn’t hear a lot of the spoken stuff and the movement was interesting but not what you’d call choreography. 

I don’t know that anyone involved in the production could have coherently summarised what they were trying to achieve. This isn’t a criticism – as performance art it’s perfectly healthy to create an open-ended environment with no knowledge of the results. It seemed a lot of fun for all participants, too. But a lot of the imagery employed and themes of mutable bodies, oozing viscera and contamination are pretty familiar.


I’ve linked these three mini-reviews because they collectively seem to indicate a couple of things to me:

Firstly, they all show how younger performance makers usually have to get a certain range of things out of their system, which is why they’re about things that are interesting to theatre folks in their early twenties (partying, body horror, their relationship to theatre itself). Indeed, all of these shows are about all of these things in certain ways.

Secondly, they all show what a great network of younger performance makers there are in Melbourne right now – it’s really, really encouraging to see people energetically mounting productions such as these. More on that in a later post.

Thirdly, they all suggest to me a bit of a crisis these performance makers face. They’re all influenced by theories of postmodernism, but all face the stalemate that undergrad pomo courses leave students with. They all know that we can’t simply return to models of na├»ve realist theatre and remain interesting to anyone with a serious interest in performance, but they’re also unclear where to go from here. They’re either too aware of alternatives, so that it seems everything has been tried before, or they’re not aware and therefore try to invent something new which has already been invented.

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