A `danse macabre`

This is one challenging encounter. True, when it comes to performative arts, linguistic medium (almost) never prevents understanding. True, too, that Shakespeare’s `ethics symbolism` transcends space and time. True, also, is that at the hands of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, ethics and language come to be an artistic composition embodied into the movement of a whole. Ultimately — Instagram also says so, `they are Cheek by Jowl`, inseparable, integrated, British by-birth international by-right. Choral in nature as in dance, it is some sort of brand practice the (almost) permanent performers’ `commonality` presence on stage. Therefore, no matter whether the message is conveyed in Russian, French, Italian, or English.

This Shakespearean encounter continues to remain a challenging one, though. That is not because it is in Russian, as produced with the sister ensemble of the Moscow Pushkin Theatre. That is neither because of some abstract, almost `dry`— if not claustrophobic, choices, in scenery and costumes, with just one (abrupt) music concession contradicting all the rest. This Donnellanian interpretation of Measure for Measure challenges because it grips the text — a comedy? (let’s leave the question open) and the `monstrous bargain` — `sleep with me and someone will be saved`, with ferocious realism. In spite of some stretched, almost overdue, laughters, and the `new Moscow`, which is rather a `New Yorika`, backdrop, the hashtag stands: #endrapeculture.

Could be this late plot’s tune is irritating in itself (harassing?), but the impression, whether after reading, or after attending it, is an acute `uncomfortableness`. Isabella — an impeccable Anna Vardevanian, loses all in the attempt of arranging for everyone not to lose anything. To the effect that the assault she escapes from returns disguised as the annihilation of her individuality, as an assault to her own identity. Isabella is no more. Thus making this Shakespeare even more challenging, since for Donnellan the keystone is unceasingly stated to be forgiveness, whilst no-one feels nothing in this version, let alone gratitude which feeds forgiveness as an absolute mother.

The ferocious human variety — beastly, underlined in the opening tour with a short passage on all four, living into the narration, is differently composed: little State power men, not that much post-soviet, rigorously in suits, such as the Duke, who, as much incapable to access his responsibility principle, as he is in his being neurotic, abandons his city-state, or such as Angelo, his alter-ego, to whom he entrusts the rule, without being aware (are we sure?) he will turn it into a regime; a band of hookers, pimps, whore-runners, small `fantasists` wheeler-dealers, — such as the emblematic Lucio, and women not of loose morals, but rather of fragile morals; and then the clerics, nuns and friars, otherwise standing on the sidelines, in a diverse kind of claustrum, in a not dissimilar manner, though, as those who live in the suburban brothels.

Anna-Khalilulina.-Photo-Johan-Persson-1
© Johan Persson

The fornication felony, — Shakespearean hyperbolic emblem of the above mentioned symbolism, is immediately restored as soon as the new `controller` settles, and even have it worn in the shape of a seal-collar, `Fornicator`, to the very poorly not guilty Claudio, responsible for having impregnated Juliet (far less fortunate than the other one) and awaiting, in a jail hosting a further sub-humanity, to be executed. That is here, around the chance to save this life, where Isabella’s odyssey begins, a desperate quest to be woman in a world of men. To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, Who would believe me?

She will save her brother, his partner, the little one born not from lust, but from inconsistency. She will even save her abuser, condemning him to atone for a previous analogous offence committed against Mariana — definitely the far most tragic figure in this `comedy`. She will save her virginity, not her chastity, though, and so losing her identity. No longer wearing her veil, she will end up dancing an understated folk waltz in the arms of the Duke, quite possibly like him — as a matter of fact, neurotically incapable of accessing her responsibility principle. That same Duke who has actually never left his city-state (Vienna, London, the Chinese `Sin-City` the education pack talks about? It doesn’t matter much really) in order to control from the inside its life `lymphs` disguised as a humble friar.

This Shakespeare is challenging. Perhaps the truth is that what challenges is to stand the sight of a repulsive humanity whose dark side does not spare anyone — as director assistant Kirill Sbitnev states. After all,
An Angelo for Claudio,
Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure,
Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure.
This is the `death dance` of an inconsistent life anyone is at risk of living. Marvellously encapsulated in front of five red cubes with the function of scenic `partiture`, at time execution chamber, `red light window`, tableau vivant, the lamps are blinding upon this fragile reality.

Anna-Khalilulina-Peter-Rykov.-Photo-Johan-Persson
© Johan Persson

Seen on the Cheek by Jowl YouTube channel available until May 28 2020

A ghost is a ghost is a ghost

The audio of a vintage trailer covers the chattering of the audience, whilst the ultra-technologic proscenium begins to enliven. A `nurse` stage-hand sets a micro-screen behind an actor who is rather `acting` as a presenter. Disorientating further are a Macbethian kilt and an iPad in his hand. Fast paced he conquers a stool, and places it in front of an anchored video camera directed onto the interior of the scene. He sits down and starts `presenting`, — together with his double, materialising in the screen behind him, the features of this uncommon `action` upon the most iconic Shakespearean character.

The impression is that this is just a preamble. Thus, one just starts to listen. `In 1964, — he expounds — Richard Burton had an experience that no other actor had never had before, the chance to see himself perform on a Broadway stage through a process called `Theatrofilm` with `Electronovision` `. What that is, — he admits, a little embarrassed — he has no clue. Then he proceeds: `I am no scientist`, but `I have seen the film, and I can only say it seems to be like a very well produced film, as one would have normally seen it in the theatre` — he self-corrects, `in the cinema, except that this was shot in the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre with an actual audience`.

It is just after some research one finds out that Scott Shepherd — a formidable voice print, is actually already doing his job with an on stage `calque` of the opening trailer. Therefore, we are already into The Wooster Group production of Hamlet. The mobile device is used to communicate with a further mega-video with the function of scenery flat, upon which, together with technical staff — overstepping the fourth wall, without fracturing it, he starts projecting the acclaimed production directed by Sir John Gielgud, starring Hollywood icons like the Hitchcockian Hume Cronyn. A multiplication of Deleuzian `folds`, disclosing a not only scenic depth.

He proceeds stating that this `film` was shown simultaneously in something like 2000 movie theaters across the United States on September 23 and 24 that same year, aiming at never been shown again. `Never until now`. The avant-garde work of the New York based group is not new to the integration of performance and video, and the one on Hamlet gathers in itself a multiplicity of peculiar notes, definitely beginning with the notion of `ghost`. The editing of the miraculous original — in the early 1960s `projecting`, literally, into the future, plays around the `spirit` of Hamlet, and all of its representations.

TWG's_HAMLET_001__photo_by_Paula_Court

© Paula Court

The intention, `with our Hamlet`, one can read in the program notes of a piece born in 2005 at the Performing Garage located in Wooster Street, SoHo, and from then on touring around up to the 2013 Edimburgh Festival, whose video, — further `fold`, is now accessible on Kanopy, is to reverse that process, reconstructing it. A `reversed-Theatrofilm` — public laughs, where Burton is there but he is not, just like a ghost, and Shepherd plays with this ghost, compensating his absences, as well as the other actors of the ensemble directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, founder, in 1967, together with Richard Schechner, of what was, at the beginning, the Performance Group.

A specific quote from Grotowsky in the program signals to what kind of theatre this specific fragment in the history of performative arts belongs to, `I am in the process of speaking with my ancestors. And, of course, I am not in agreement with my ancestors. But at the same time, I can’t deny them. They are my base; they are my source. It’s a personal affair between them and me.` And those ancestors’ steps, and voices, the actors reproduce as in a `chorus-collage`, channelling their founding past — right as in a `spiritualism` practice, by means of in-ear receivers, and mobile scenic props minimalising further the already `poor` original staging: a rectangular table and a small throne-armchair.

An Elsinore Castle reduced then to its atrium: a high backcloth-flat, a diagonal wooden structure made of a series of four rungs and a flight with banister, the allusion to an armoury, and the ghost of the father in the shape of an unmistakably Gielgudian shadow-projection… Now proposed again in a smaller, neutral version, halfway between a movie set and a rehearsal room, in order to make space for the bodies and their visibility. All the cuts, and the technical issues — `unrendered`, while apparently real, are actually part of a revived script, and likewise conceived to make the `new actors` visible, a generation honouring its predecessors.

That is how, in order to paint of `present` the topical moments of the tragedy, not only two cameo-songs come, composed especially by Fischerspooner for this production, almost a `concert-into-the-performance` paying homage to the Ophelia-Laertes relationship — Casey Spooner being part of the cast, and playing, among other characters, Laertes himself, but also the `technicolor` and voice distortion for the troupe setting up the `mouse trap`, and again some `pirate-fragments` inserted in the Burtonian template, surgically cut out from Zeffirelli, Almereyda, Branagh movies. Tribute accomplished.

TWG's_HAMLET_002__photo_by_Paula_Court

© Paula Court