Tuesday, 25 November 2008

There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark. . .

I didn't think about it at the time when I was booking the tickets, but this past Saturday, I ended up seeing two plays that both had a connection to Denmark, and that both contained a set dominated by a large rectangular banquet table. Oh how I love delicious coincidences and unexpected connections.
The matinee was The Company Theatre's production of Festen, based on the 1998 dogme Danish film by Thomas Vinterberg, Mogens Rukov and Bo hr. Hansen. It takes place during the celebration of Helge's 60th birthday and his friends and grown children (all except for his daughter who recently committed suicide) have gathered for a meal and many toasts. But the guests get more than they bargained for, and in the course of the evening, painful family secrets will be revealed. Despite excellent reviews and a stellar cast, the production I saw seemed a little flat. I think the set annoyed me. While there were some very clever uses of one bed to represent several different bedrooms, I kept getting distracted by these huge floodlights placed around the stage. One critic suggested these were a nod to the play's origins as a film, but since the houselights remained on the entire time and the floodlights were never actually used, they seemed completely superfluous and silly. I do want to check out the movie however.
Then it was on to the Great Dane himself and a world sneak preview, courtesy of Necessary Angel Theatre Company, of Hamlet, directed by Graham McLaren, co-founder of Scotland's Theatre Babel. I saw his excellent production of Medea a few years ago that had the actors speaking in heavy Scottish brogues. His modern two hour version of Hamlet is still a work in progress; the full production will be touring next year and I can't wait. It's hard to do something new and exciting with such a well-known play, but the bits I saw were truly thrilling. The entire piece takes place in a dining room, with a banquet table showing the ravages of a previous feast with lots of empty beer cans. In the programme notes, McLaren writes, "the question I ask is, 'If Seneca were the dramaturge and Shakespeare the playwright, what might the result be?'" Well, a very violent and visceral version that also had some very clever moments of humour and modern satire. We first see Gertrude and Claudius as they come into the darkened room from a costume party - Gertrude dressed as Marilyn Monroe and Claudius wearing a gorilla mask. He gets her up on the table and hikes her skirt up and then Hamlet switches on the lights, literally catching Claudius with his pants down. Instead of spying behind a curtain, McLaren has Polonius hiding under the table and when Hamlet kills him, it's by pulling him and the tablecloth at the same time and bashing in his head repeatedly, leaving heavy bloodstains, not only on the cloth but on the floor; Claudius then subsequently rubs Hamlet's naked body into Polonius's blood. Yes - it was shocking, but the violence didn't seem gratuitous, although I will admit to a bit of anxious queasiness when Laertes and Hamlet started duelling with knives instead of swords. I don't know if McLaren's pared down version (the play starts with Hamlet's 'O that this too too sullied flesh would melt' soliloquy and two characters have wittily merged into one Guildencrantz) will be his final one or if it was just for this preview, but it's clear he is having lots of fun playing around with the text to induce new meanings from the language. Hamlet's 'to be or not to be' speech for example, comes after he has killed Polonius. This was an original, energetic and enthralling piece and it will be interesting to see how it evolves into the final production. Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

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