Photo courtesy of Theater Mitu

Review: Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet

Entering NYU Abu Dhabi’s Black Box for Theater Mitu’s production Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet is like entering a world in and of itself. There’s a narrow hallway ...

Apr 18, 2015

Photo courtesy of Theater Mitu
Entering NYU Abu Dhabi’s Black Box for Theater Mitu’s production Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet is like entering a world in and of itself. There’s a narrow hallway in which human bodies collapse like sardines in a sterilized jar. Several spaces of installation and performance permeate each other through a cacophony of sounds, cables and screens. What might we find behind the dimly lit corners of the space? A central stage gathers the audience, cued by the strident sound of a rock band, reminiscent of Richard Schechner’s take on Tooth of Crime. Like an energetic pipeline, the sound starts in the underground pit and brings the audience to a glass and metal cage for minutes at a time.
Hamlet, as we know it, is nowhere to be found, and judging by the decreasing number of people throughout the performance, Mitu’s iconoclastic mission is certainly not a traditionally pleasant experience.
Enmeshed within the US American theater avant-garde of the 1970’s onward, the performances are disconnected and unrealistic, with actors carrying out repetitive tasks. The performances occurring in the side spaces are fragmented into several distortions in live video feeds or superimposed recordings. Mimicking the style of The Wooster Group, a highly influential theater company in the New York experimental theater scene, actors simulate physicality taken from archival material during the delivery of their lines, often widely known soliloquies in Shakespeare’s text.
Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet aims to dissect the multiple layers of the classic Shakespearean tale. As such, memory is a central theme throughout the formal choices in the play, with simultaneous recordings and live feeds that are testimony to the memories that are generated onstage. Furthermore, the theatrical experience is structured in a museum frame, reflecting on how we store collective memories, questioning the prioritization of some versions of the Hamlet story at hand. Theater Mitu writes its version of history, with Aysan Celik playing a female Hamlet, and gives it to us much like we give it to ourselves: in glass containers, delimited spaces and semi-structured routes.
As for the content of the piece, Michael Littig’s dance in one of the side stages was certainly flawless, Scott Spahr’s movement was precise and finely weighted and Denis Butkus’s presence on stage, as per usual, was clear and uplifting.
However, the actors often knew too much. When Vsevolod Meyerhold started talking about a concept he identifies as biomechanics, he proposed a radical alternative to method acting, a style popular in the US: the actor is a body first of all, and emotion can be grown out of a simple physical gesture. Instead, Polendo’s actors bring an emotional interpretation of the scene as a superseding quality to the chosen physicality, which often prevents an audience from understanding the events in their own ways.
In that sense, everything in the piece is instructed: the experience becomes a sort of cage for the audience, where the ushers doubling as security guards reinforce the strict rules of navigation that Polendo himself announces before the play begins. There is a rigorous script for the audience and little encouragement to upset it. Even the few moments of emotion are cued to the audience through the use of slow and floating piano chords surrounded by children’s voices. A recording explaining how to train a parakeet to repeat sentences becomes an image not only of the actors’ tasks, but, sadly, of the audience’s experience — an instructed, tailored emotional explication that, however, satisfies those whose curiosity lies in dissecting Hamlet’s brain.
“It was stunning. It's like they took Hamlet's character, shattered it into a thousand pieces, then glued them back together for us to see,” said senior Mohit Mandal.
The most effective side of the piece was its inquiry into Hamlet’s depression. Forget all the research into psychological theories and convicted murderers, the piece itself unpacks Hamlet’s depression in its very form. Time, continuously controlled for both audiences and actors, who are forced to be within delimited spaces at certain moments; the repetitiveness of the tasks in the side performances; and the rigidity of the actors’ choreography, conform to a Sisyphean landscape, leaving the audience hungry for a heart.
Among the shaking music, sweat and physical exhaustion, there was a little gem I couldn’t stay away from, even when the band began to play for their last time. In four computers and a Zen-like seating arrangement, Celik’s voice reads a text developed from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, alongside other sources. In that two-minute recording, which I listened to about three times, there was the secret that seemed missing from the play, a sentiment that seemed to arise on its own, even from the disconnected pieces. A surprise that, in Richard Foreman’s terms, was “a subtle insertion between logic and accident," keeping the body and the mind alive.
“CHOOSE THIS ALWAYS!” Foreman advised.
Despite a flashy, monumental set, Mitu’s Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet tends to fall either within the accidental or the extremely logical, leaving the audience yearning for an effect that could unwind the rigidity of the setting.
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