Friday, 9 March 2012


Forty years ago, in my last semester at Wesleyan, I took a seminar in Hamlet with Prof. Sherman Hawkins—what I remember best about it is that I also got paid, in my capacity as a university building & grounds employee, to drive the class down to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven to see the play, with a young Stacy Keach playing the lead. But we also covered a lot of the revenge tragedies that were so popular in Shakespeare's time, putting the play into a genre context to see how it transcended that genre, as it were.

I was reminded of that when I saw Pan Pan's production of The Rehearsal at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in Wellington last week. I have to say I was attracted as much by the poster, which played up the play's subtitle: Playing The Dane with a picture of a great dane wearing a huge Ruff collar. It suggested a certain playfulness with Hamlet, a promise which was only partially delivered. In their efforts to deconstruct Hamlet play, Pan Pan have created something that's more interesting than entertaining, often thought-provoking, but often failing to follow up on its own provocations.

The Rehearsal deconstructs Hamlet in two parts. In the first, three actors vie to play the lead role: they are put through audition paces by the director, a casting director, and an academic who has opened the play by reading an essay. The opening essay was delivered by Prof. Harry Ricketts of Wellington's Victoria University and presumably written by him—though the original Dublin production apparently used Trinity College prof Amanda Piese as the lecturer (and what may be a part of her lecture was included in the programme). It was so much not a part of the play itself that the theatre's 'no mobiles' and festival's promotional announcements came over the PA system after he'd finished, as if to cue that now the play itself would begin. It reminded me of Brecht, who liked the didactic because he didn't trust his audience to get what he was trying to say unless he laid it out for them—I'd argue that's because Brecht's plays don't always do what he wants to think they're doing, but that's a different essay. But if such a comparison, of Pan Pan's Shakespeare to Brecht, were intentional, it's not taken that much farther.

At the end of the act, the audience is invited to come on stage and vote for their preferred Hamlet by standing behind him. This is a little bit of theatrical fun which sadly doesn't continue into the second act—and doesn't really tell us much about whether the audience is sympathetic to the various prejudices exhibited by the director, the perceived talent of each actor, or indeed some deep insight into which approach might best suit the character of the brooding prince. But it does give a hint as to where The Rehearsal is going. Particularly when one of the aspiring Hamlets is asked to perform as if it were a play by Beckett.

The second act takes place on a gorgeous set lit by candles and filled with gleaming dustbins. The desk behind which those who cast the play sat is moved to the rear, and none of those characters play any part in the rest of the play, until the academic delivers a smaller essay to close it out. Their presence is hardly noticeable, unless you're expecting something from them, in which case you'll be disappointed. The set, with huge mirrors on each side, to a great extent overpowers the performance—at times it is far more interesting than what the actors are doing, as when they perform Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' soliloquy as a round. It makes its point: that it is not only Hamlet who faces such existential dilemmas, very well, but once made, the point is lost amidst the dustbins.

But like those giant mirrors, the scene reflects the uncertainties around the character, the way Shakespeare plays with language, and has Hamlet himself play with language; the way he deliberately renders insights into his nature uncertain. At one point there is reference to Hamlet in terms of the 'instability of being', and surely Shakespeare's point is that all being is unstable. Pan Pan's point may be more that all interpretation is unstable; in the second act there are a number of reflections on legendary performances, particularly Irish ones. It may be post modern commentary of our perception of the play through its adaptations, but it's also something that suggests the academic essay, or the pub debate, is somehow more memorable than the performance itself.

That the two failed Hamlets play Laertes and Horatio adds a sense of reflection to their characters as well—highlighting the parallels which Shakespeare has drawn into the play. When the traveling players arrive, they segue from playing The Murder Of Gonzago, the famous play-within-a-play, to doing Hamlet itself, thus making a play within a play within a play. This is acted out by local schoolboys, who were quite good in their roles but left me wondering if this device, like that of the local academic, was intended to show that anyone could perform Hamlet (in which case, why Pan Pan?) or maybe to providee a sort of local relevance with which to sell the play more easily to festival programmers around the world?

The one element of the play that becomes more certain is its treatment of Ophelia. Judith Roddy's sassy interpretation steals the show—the production leaves you in no doubt of the strength of Ophelia's character, and the way that strength is ignored, indeed repressed, by a particularly misogynistic set of attitudes from virtually all the male characters, including her brother, her father, and her lover. Given that Gertrude's presence is diminished greatly, this seems to me the most straightforward of the play's reinterpretations.

The least straightforward element is the play's failure to engage fully with the Beckett references it litters through its various Hamlets. That they are there shouldn't surprise coming from an Irish production, and given the other Irish references in the performance (aside: isn't it fascinating how the greatest 'English' novelist, poet, and playwright of the past century were all Irish?). But it was disappointing they weren't taken further, because once it started my thinking down those lines, seeing Clove and Hamlet together at last, the potential for re-evaluation seemed overpowering.

Because Hamlet is as much a prototype of Theatre of the Absurd as an apotheosis of revenge tragedy. In the Absurd, characters tend to be trapped by their neuroses, which are usually traceable to things buried in childhood, as in Freudian psychology. They are able to cope only by re-enacting rituals, often of a nature that seems ridiculous when we watch. It is not a perfect fit, but given that the undercurrent of the incest theme (as I mentioned, played down by Gertrude's diminshed role), and given Hamlet's almost ritualistic see-sawing, it makes a lot of sense (think too of the extreme Freudian interpretations many famous Hamlet productions have put forward). So when you have highlights from Hamlet performed on a giant Endgame garbage-can set, you'd expect the connection to be exploited more fully. And that, in the end, is the problem with The Rehearsal—it is indeed a rehearsal for ideas about Shakespeare's play, more than a working out of those ideas. It is content to end with another footnote from a professor, and leave us thinking. This is not a bad thing, it would just be so much more satisfying if the literal great dane on set had actually done something, if the play itself had finally come down somewhere, instead of all over the critical place.

1 comment :

BWD said...

This is by far the most careful, detailed, and nuanced response to Pan Pan's NZ performance. Thanks for this valuable document of reception! If only you had also written about the even more eggy Hamlet (and cheesy Macbeth) featured in Frequently Asked Questions...