Hamlet|Collage

Caught this last night. I was super excited to see it because I first discovered Robert LePage’s work through his production of Wagner’s Ring for the New York Met Opera. I saw that on DVD but even then found it gorgeous, modern but also appropriately and goofily old-fashioned.

Anyway, by the time I got into the theatre I’d already been warned to lower my expectations by people who’d seen Hamlet|Collage and found themselves unimpressed (some disappointed and angry). It should at least be visually beautiful, I thought, if not the most rewarding production of Hamlet ever. True enough, there are some stunning pictures, sadly far and few in between. Certainly not enough to make up for the rest of the show, which turns out to be a pretty bland bash-through of the play’s top moments set against a massive rotating cubic set whose initial magic wears off very quickly.

And therein lies the rub: what’s left when something that promises, minimally, to serve up the director’s trademark beautiful stage pictures ends up being so visually underwhelming?

The scenic design– cliché castle-y decor and backdrop wallpaper projected on the cube– is at best contextually relevant, at its worst drab and unmemorable. The special effects– clunky harness work, funky multimedia design, lots of unexpected furniture popping out of the walls– are clumsy and repetitive, sometimes surprising, but often like a poor man’s Cirque du Soleil.

Of course, some moments shine. The drowning of Ophelia through a fabric-and-multimedia pond is pretty, if teetering slightly on “underwater adventures!” cheesy by the time the perspective shifts to her floundering, manatee-like, beneath the surface. And even this, like many of LePage’s illusions– of flight, of abstract, physics-defying space– is never fully convincing because the tech is sloppy, noisy and distracting. In fact, for all the technology at work, the simplest things turn out to be the most pleasing. With Ophelia drowning, the introduction of something as tactile as cloth into that cold computerised space is almost moving. The same cloth, earlier, serves as arras and screen for a shadow-play, a very harrowing confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude, all Oedipal creepiness and violence lurking in the wings.

But many other bits feel like missed opportunities. Hamlet’s haunting, that great scene that’s inherently otherworldly and magical turns out bland and ungainly. For all his whinging about hell, the ghost seems pretty chill. He hangs lamely in the air like a ham strung up to dry, mic-ed up voice warbling and sighing and horrible.

So I end up asking myself throughout the show: what’s left when the magic tricks fail to entertain? And scene after scene, “what’s left” turns out to be that old chestnut: a production looking for fresh ways to stage Shakespeare, but sadly not finding very much.

Here we have Hamlet in a vague 60s set-up. Why? Who knows. Polonius is a CCTV-operating, cold war-era spy master. He presents Hamlet’s incriminating love letters on an OHP. Laertes has a funky incesty thing going on with an ogre-ish Ophelia (Mironov, or his body double, you can’t often tell, in a bad wig).”To be or not to be” takes place in a dank linoleum-lined public loo. It’s all tres funky, but by the time the “Poor Yorrick” speech rolls around, I’ve about had it with all this boring old-wine-new-skins business. The speech is delivered in some kind of bizarre palace morgue (is that a thing?), the skull in question rendered as an X-ray on a light board. How bored have people become with Shakespeare that this joke alone is worth all that trouble? It’s a joke that seems to land though, eliciting some knowing chuckles from people who clearly like this sort of clever re-contextualising. I found it generally unproductive. Trite, even. The mad noble Hamlet as a raving lunatic in a straight-jacket? Novel.

Most of the scenes play out blandly: a long chain of listless, whispery non-moments that lack any vitality and urgency. And that’s no fault of solo actor Yevegeny Mironov as much as it is the flimsy dramatic platform he’s working with. The dramaturgy sucks, basically: character seems a joke category, passé, irrelevant and tut-tut to anyone who expects otherwise. Story feels like an errand the production has to run, likewise tut-tut.

I get it: it’s not that sort of show. And that’d be all well and good if the listless, floating fragmentariness were a consistent strategy. But this turns out to be a bogus “collage” that either doesn’t have the courage to remain confidently shattered or can’t resist being gathered up by the play’s narrative force. Almost an hour in, after all that dull painterly trudging through renderings masquerading as scenes, all yearning to be film, the show returns to the plot, somewhat reluctantly; sluggishly. By then, Hamlet|Collage has long stopped being a play, so you wonder why it’s acting like one.

Rinse and repeat, and “the rest is silence” is a mix of relief and anti-climax. Let’s not even talk about whether or not the zinger lands, as written, like a heaving, complex full-stop to all the crazed chatter preceding it. No such luck here, no dramatic power here, no overarching gloss of the play, not even a scandalously bad gloss. It makes you wonder why do the play at all. Surely a magical rotating cube could’ve been put to better use.

And then you realise as Mironov takes his bow that for all of his acting, much of it no doubt superb beneath the haze of sound manipulation and patchy lighting, his being live on stage felt arbitrary for most of the time he was on it (save an excellent, body-hopping, vigorous turn in The Mousetrap scene).

You wonder: is this the big idea? That technology itself out-performs the performer? For two hours, the live body on stage has not stirred the air with truth or force or voice. What’s voice but another colour to paint with? Maybe it’s just the glue to stick the pieces onto the vanguard? Live performance has not moved, nor experienced, nor communicated any power. What’s body when there’s all that live-camera casting? He might as well have been a hologram. Mironov drowns in the universe of his co-stars, Technology and God Knows What the Big Project was Supposed to Be. You wonder if the standing ovation at the end is testament to people’s natural appreciation of the feat of the one-man show, the magic tricks, the quick-changes..? The no doubt masterful feat of putting the show together? What? How can something so inert have brought people to their feet? Maybe it’s just me, and I’d had a long day of sitting down.

To its credit, the production does appear to have a point of view. It flirts with a deliciously camp aesthetic that gets to the core of the play’s deeply sardonic, comic spirit. Eg. a gangly, knife-wielding arm flays stupidly about from behind a door as Claudius prays. It’s all Punch and Judy, and literally the funniest thing I’ve seen all year. The women of the play, given a super bad deal by the playwright, are rendered here as trashy, lumpy drag queens in a modern-day tribute to Elizabethan best practices. It’s still weird and annoying, but you wonder if it’s the production making fun of the play’s period-appropriate misogyny. Camp filling the void of female agency? Much camp abounds. It’s great ‘cuz bitchy asides and bumbling idiots is what I’ve always loved about Hamlet. And perhaps this show is really The Lunatic Comedy of Hamlet on a 3D cinema screen. Honestly it’s a version of the play I’ve always wanted to see. I live. But here the tone is inconsistent, it’s often dreadfully boring, and it seems more in love with its clever staging than the play it rides on.

So yeah. Not a good night out. And  it’s not like I’m a Shakespeare purist or anything. But this Hamlet looked like it could be fun, and I definitely wasn’t expecting a straight Hamlet by any measure. Thing is, this wasn’t even an arresting funky Hamlet. It wasn’t even fun. And as far as Russian “collage”-like renderings of the play go, I think I’ve experienced better by way of Tchaikovsky, here for your listening pleasure.

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