A Discovered Country
A soft spoken cast member, a teacher, or a professor perhaps, the type that might have made you hate Shakespeare all those years ago, moves to the front of the stage and begins a relatively lengthy lecture on Hamlet. Being soft spoken doesn't really help, making it all a bit difficult to hear. Though in fairness, as the evening progresses, slowly, they’re not the only one to fall victim to low delivery. As is often the case with academic treatise, they take far too long by overly complicating saying something that is often simple enough to grasp: the text, language, and being of Hamlet are unstable and mutable. As, indeed, are countless other plays and characters you might think of, or post modern re-imaginings that challenge notions of character as autonomous being. With a rendition of Greensleeves then being played on a recorder, you’re just about ready to toss your body onto the corpse-like pile heaped on the director's table at the side of the stage. Thankfully Pan Pan Theatre’s “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” directed by Gavin Quinn, remembers, for a time anyway, that its far better to show than to tell and sets about the business of an often wonderful meta-theatrical showing, often to mesmerising effect.
Divided neatly into two sections, the first half of “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” is built around a delightful audition process wherein three actors with all their foibles, Anthony Morris, Conor Madden and Fionn Walton, vie for the role of Hamlet, with the audience having the final decision. First we have the bird chested, petulant Hamlet, then the over sharing, maniacal Hamlet, and finally the Mel Gibson wannabe Hamlet, replete with the biggest Braveheart broadsword of them all. Which of these, like Richard Burton in 1964, might be the next great Hamlet? Is such a thing even possible? If Hamlet is never really there to begin with, what exactly is being deconstructed? Throughout, Shakespeare's text is delivered by way of fractured sections, outside of chronology or stable character identification. Yet the first half soon feels like its more intent on deconstructing the theatrical experience above Shakespeare's text, proving to be far more engaging for doing so. An audience member is asked to assist in a rehearsed reading, all have to judge the three actors as they audition and, in a sublimely clever move, the entire audience are invited onto the stage to give their verdict, shattering the already unstable fourth wall and making them complicit in the theatrical construct that follows. Well, sort of.
Following a near endless interval that just keeps on giving, action resumes with the emphasis shifting from deconstructing theatre to deconstructing Hamlet, becoming less engaging in doing so. Throughout, the on-stage director and his crew sit like unmoved movers at their table, offering neither direction, notes, or commentary, just their unrelenting gaze on the performance and the slew of dustbins that now litter the stage in neat lines of four. The spectating audience, who, having enjoyed the illusion of being democratically engaged in the first half, are essentially parked observers for the second. They sit and listen as long passages are recited or reimagined, out of sequence and with only a vague connection to the larger narrative, whose minimal insights, and sparodoic moments of genuine inventiveness, are not always enough to combat a certain degree of tedium setting in. A tedium thankfully broken when performers escape from solely reciting the text into some wild, meta-theatrical physicality, the lunatics finally taking over the asylum, or one of the many loony bins in this instance, to dance, head bang, or engage in the best worst sword fight ever. Things become wild, hilarious, and unpredictable at times as Hamlet is deconstructed in all his, her, and its guises. A wonderful twist, which gives Anna Shiels McNamee's mesmerising Ophelia one of the strongest moments in the second-half, shifts the balance of power and suggests alternate possibilities. But the real power shift is yet to come, revealed as the stage is finally conceded to the academic. It is they that have the final say, setting about reframing Hamlet, as well as “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” experience by way of a dull interpretation that’s been explored and expressed far better elsewhere, offering a disappointingly weak perspective from which to reflect on Hamlet and on all that's just been witnessed.
With, “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” there’s a strong sense of trying to deconstruct the undiscovered country that is Hamlet, and render it into a discovered country, one neatly mapped out. Hamlet as solvable problem, even if the solution is instability and mutability. Yet many of the experiences it seeks to deconstruct often seem to elude it. If Hamlet supposedly inhabits a space between life and death, then “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” could be said to inhabit a space similar to a critical response to a secondary academic response to Hamlet, defined more by a sense of remove as by a flouted proximity, being always truer to its own theoretical framework.
With “The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” when Pan Pan's theatrical intelligence dominates, there is joy, wonder, and a sense of discovery to be had. But when it serves as a campaigning hand maiden to a pre-established academic theory, one not all that insightful to begin with, theatrical delight in serious play and discovery becomes subsumed in an academic lecture, once again relegating the audience to the passive roles of listener and spectator.
“The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane” by Pan Pan Theatre runs at The Abbey Theatre until May 26
For more information, visit Pan Pan Theatre or The Abbey Theatre