Hamlet | Collage

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 12, 2016

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SIFA’s kicking off with a virtuosic masterpiece of a play, a celebration of the genius of three men: Canadian director and multimedia addict Robert Lepage, Russian actor and national treasure Evgeny Mironov, and of course the playwright of playwrights and swan of Avon, Will-Yum Shakes-Pah.

And the show really is pretty wow. At the reception I went up to all the Russians telling them “ Это было удивительно,” which means, “That was amazing,” only I had the stress all wrong and they had no idea what I meant until a handsome young lighting operator corrected me… but that’s another story.

As you probably know, Hamlet | Collage is a one-man performance of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, staged in a rotating white box—or rather a corner: three squares joined together at a vertex, suspended in the middle of the stage. 

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The show opens on Hamlet, portrayed as a mental patient, crouched in the corner of a padded cell, arms bound into a straitjacket. He’s muttering his first soliloquy: the famous “That this too too solid flesh would melt” one—only we skip that opening line, jumping ahead to “That it should come to this! But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two...”

(I don’t quite know what to make of this. Although the mise-en-scène suggests we’re getting an intimate view of an individual’s mental trauma, his words describe the state gone awry: we omit talk of suicide in favour of an attack of royal misconduct. Are we speaking of political or nervous breakdowns? Are they one and the same?)

But as Hamlet paces, he discovers that his sleeves are in fact unbound—that he can slip free of his straitjacket. A door slams open in the cell, and everything changes: what we thought was a padded wall is a multimedia projection, and the three walls move, apertures and fold-out furniture appearing in them, becoming a thousand locations: a garden, a palace, a library, a surveillance centre, a bathroom, the night sky, the belly of a ship, a morgue, a grave…

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His prison becomes an everywhere. As Hamlet says:

O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

And Hamlet becomes an everyman. We see Mironov playing a myriad of roles: Horatio, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildernstern, old Hamlet's ghost, even bloody Osric...

I'd wondered how Lepage was going to represent dialogues, and it turns out the answer is: IN EVERY WAY POSSIBLE.  There's video projections for Claudius and Gertrude (Mironov actually changes his wig for a beard and crown mid-speech), a body double for Ophelia and Laertes; phone calls when Polonius is addressing his servants; letter at doorsteps when Ophelia's rejecting Hamlet; a live video feed of Hamlet's face from two angles to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (so each one turns his back when he addresses the other), shifting from seat to seat without costume changes as the royal audience for the Mousetrap play; human shadow puppetry from behind an arras when Hamlet confronts Gertrude; a swivelling turntable and background when Hamlet faces down Claudius; even a multimedia ten-second delay ghost-image when Hamlet fights Laertes, so that he's forever parrying the same thrusts he made one moment before...

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(This bit honestly reminded me a lot of Madonna's music video for Die Another Day.)

And hot damn, it's incredible how Mironov can switch from one character to another in the blink of an eye: blond wig for dark moustache, sunglasses for crown. One of the festival ambassadors said it reminded him of bian lian, the mask-changing sequences in Sichuan opera.

Nor is versatility Mironov's only talent. He's a veritable gymnast as well, clambering across the outside and hanging on to the inside of the cube as it turns, descending from trap doors in the top of the cube on wires like a freaking marionette...

And then at the end of it all, he thrusts his rapiers into a window to attack the projected image of Claudius, and he finds his swords replaced with straitjacket sleeves, and ends his tale reduced once again to a madman in his cell.

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So yes, this is kind of incredible. But even though Tay Tong specifically told me I can't write anything bad about this piece, I'm gonna go ahead and say that there are some things I find really... shall we say, odd.

Let's start with something super-utilitarian: accessibility.

The idea of a one-man Hamlet actually sounds super-accessible—not unlike the three-man Hamlet that the Reduced Shakespeare Company performs in their comedy show, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). So two of my friends were actually looking forward to this as an introduction to Hamlet. One of them had never read or seen a Shakespeare play before—and why would that be surprising? Literature education is no longer compulsory in schools, and Singapore has less of a sense of a compulsory literary canon than Europe does.

So these two friends were, shall we say, confused. Remember, a one-man show means that many characters appear alone, out of firmly established context. Furthermore, the huge emphasis on monologues in the show's first half means the pacing is slow—no sharp-witted bantering to catch our attention.

Add to that the fact that the script's performed in Russian, and that the surtitles are in an odd mix of verbatim and simplified Shakespeare, and you've got a really strange animal on your hands. Shakespeare for Beginners this ain't.

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But never mind the plebes, you may say. Surely it satisifes the sophisticated viewer!

I dunno. You know how I talked about the three geniuses of this production: the director Lepage, the actor Mironov and the playwright Shakespeare? Rather than complementing each other, it sometimes feels like they're competing with one another, working against each other's interests.

On opening night, I found that audience members kept on praising the set design—and while it's true that the set is technically amazing, it's only part of Lepage's total direction of the work. His love of multimedia gadgetry kind of eclipses everything else, to the point that the initial premise of the drama taking place in the mind of a single mental patient gets lost on the way. As one of my other friends noted, it's hard to figure out what Lepage thinks we'll gain out of this fragmentation of the text. Even ST journalist Akshita Nanda, in her rave review, admits that "it is impossible to imagine Hamlet|Collage as taking place inside the mind of a single schizophrenic".

As for Mironov—well, one gets the sense that sometimes he's playing all these roles just to show off what he can do. This Hamlet is stripped down, but it's still heavy going: it's two and a half hours with no intermission. And yet there are whole chunks of the play that remain inside for no clear purpose other than to show that Mironov can do anything. Gertrude doesn't need to give a press conference about Ophelia's death by the willow that grows aslant i'the brook; we've just seen her do it. Osric doesn't need to bungee down from a ceiling fresco to explain the fencing rules between Laertes and Hamlet either. But Mironov wants to play them, and by god he'll have us sit there and watch him do it.

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Then there's Shakespeare... 

I've already explained how difficult it is for many people in the audience to digest him in this form, trying to read metaphorical Elizabethan English off a surtitle screen. So by contrast, I'll just explain how liberating it is when there's no text to box us in. Ophelia's death scene is speechless: a swathe of cloth turns from waterfall blue to sludge brown; Ophelia wraps herself in it, makes love to it, gets pregnant with it, births it, spreads it across the ground where it turns into a pool of water, and then descends into it, disappearing into the darkness of a trap door, whereupon the cube turns and we see her underwater, suspended in the blue...

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But of course, I can't help but feel Shakespeare's language confines the contemporary theatremaker. I've grown up in the shadow of Ong Keng Sen, after all, watching his multilingual (sub)versions of King Lear and Othello, where the Fool may sing in Javanese that the king has become a stupid water buffalo. It's a decolonisation, of sorts. Whereas Hamlet | Collage still feels like it's weighted down by the past. Perhaps it's what you'd call Slavic fatalism? Is it racially insensitive to say such an attitude exists?

This work is fatalistic, though. In the original Hamlet, the corrupt regime of Claudius is replaced with a new one: the robust vigour of Fortinbras. So there is the "potentiality", shall we say, for a new beginning: freedom from Hamlet's indecision and hesitancy.

But this version has a far more depressing ending, with no paths forward. The entire pageant's been revealed as the mere dream of a madman in a padded cell. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing...

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Oh wait, that's the wrong Shakespearean tragedy.

My bad.

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  • 2016