Saturday, 11 December 2010

Review: ‘Hamlet b’, On & On Theatre Workshop, December 9th 2010 Cattle Depot Theatre, To Kwa Wan, Hong Kong

(Disclaimer; little bit academic this one, apologies!)

‘Hamlet b’ presents a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s text, a bold and daring confrontation of director Chan Ping Yiu’s concern for future China based in a fictional Tibet. Originally written under the title ‘Hamletmaschine’ in 1977 by post-modern practitioner Heiner Muller, this reconstruction is the third creation of playwright and director Chan and advances his investigation into the growth of consumer culture, which he describes as “a matter of survival or death in China”. Consequently, Chan’s motivation in ‘Hamlet B’ is to expose the cold, inhumanity of consumerism, and its contorting effect on Chinese cultural and traditional values. Thus, the “survival” and “death” to which he refers, are not to the corporeal, but to that of Chinese cultural roots and heritage.
Chan’s choice of venue, an ex-slaughter house in the delapidated district of To Kwa Wan, was spot on. The venues crumbling brick exterior juxtaposed effectively with the clinical, monochromatic set; a contrast of old and new with the former becoming physically shadowed by the spotlighted black and white anonymity of the stage.
The back wall of the stage was canvassed by a projection screen, with surveillance images of the actors projected at sporadic intervals throughout the performance, recorded from a manned video-camera within the audience. The effect was strikingly Orwellian, fostering a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness in the characters, in that, despite their protestations, “I am not Hamlet”, “I am not Ophelia”, they were unable to escape the scrutinising eye of the audience. The ensuing sense of helplessness was further augmented by a neon strip light which spanned the perimeter of the stage, fencing in the actors, leaving them unable to flee the glare of the spotlight to the sanctuary of the shadows.
The actors of ‘On & On Theatre Workshop’ reside together in the Cattle Depot artist village, and, undoubtedly, their communal residency contributed to the strength of the performance. The frequent surreal interjections of dance and song were perfectly executed, the razor sharp choreography and eerie synchronicity movement became conducive to an almost robotic atmosphere, engendering an unsettlingly subhuman dimension to the performance. This effectively channeled Chan’s message of the damaging effects of consumerism on traditional culture and the human psyche.
Chan identifies with Muller’s motif of lost identity. His use of a skeleton, multi-roling cast, though confusing, was instrumental in exposing the fragility of human individuality. Hamlet’s declaration, “I want to be a woman”, was proclaimed by an actor dressed as a policeman, who supsequently rips off his shirt to reveal a sequined bra before showering himself in money, cuing the other performers to follow suit. This communicated the deep-seated effect of modern consumerism, that a uniform or societal role is unable to mask the progressively deeper rooted desire for material gratification.
An interesting quirk was Chan’s decision to include Muller as a character in the play. The character, name-badged and blind, wheels a typewriter around the perimeter of the stage, an image symbolic of the past glory days of political expression, the typewriter representing the age pre-computers and the boom of consumer technology. The fact that Muller’s character never entered the binds of the neon strip lighting symbolised the comparative freedom of former decades, an ability to roam unconstrained by a consumerist governed society.
Ever present onstage was a large block of ice which Chan used as a symbolic centerpiece, visually demonstrating the cold, soulless nature of materialism. When not in immediate use, the ice was wheeled back, where it rhythmically dripped onto the glaringly white stage, subject to the same ongoing exposure as the actors, providing a constant, ominous presence. The steel gurney used to transport the ice echoed images of a morgue, congruent with the cold, lifeless composition of the set.
A ubiquitously tense atmosphere is maintained throughout, but by far the climactic moment of ‘Hamlet B’ was the destruction of this ice block. The scene opened with Ophelia draped over it, sensuously caressing the sides. She is shortly greeted by Hamlet, who, though just moments previously she had been shown making love to, she appears not to recognise, (doubtless a comment on decayed traditional morals). Hamlet detaches his disillusioned lover from the ice and destroys it with a hammer, causing an earsplitting crack which rips, gunshot-like through the theatre and cues a similarly piercing scream from the inconsolable Ophelia. Ophelia’s ensuing suicide, coupled with her inability to identify her former loved ones, is a poignant illustration of a distorted and ultimately tragic preference for material possession over human fellowship.
Chan’s colour scheme is also particularly compelling in that the only diversion from a basic palette of beige, white, black and brown, is red. Ophelia brandishes a badge of consumer culture in the form of a large, couture-style red bag. Similarly, the sequined underwear donned by the performers is a striking red as of course is the blood poured over the ice following its destruction. Chan exploits the multiple connotations of the colour to great impact, the blood exposes the raw mortality of man, whilst the underwear and bag links licentious carnal desire with compulsive consumerism. Additionally, Chan’s colour scheme is significant given the traditional centrality of red in Chinese culture, a colour denoting luck and fortune. It is reasonable to deduce that Chan uses red as a motif to imply that traditional values and moderated expenditure are becoming progressively corrupted by insatiably materialist urges.
    In an increasingly consumerist society, Chan’s subject matter is one to which all can relate. His striking use of imagery, in tandem with a universally strong cast allows him to confront his audience with gusto, forcing them to confront and consider the issues being explored before them.
With performances scheduled in Guangzhou and Taiwan, ‘Hamlet B’ is set to subject its intense tirade to audiences in wider Asia. Having caused significant stir amongst the Hong Kong arts community, it will be interesting to see how Chan’s edgy subject matter and unorthodox executions are received upon exportation from Hong Kong. 4/5