‘We wanted to be uncomfortable again’ – Steven Mitchell Wright on the Danger Ensemble’s move to Melbourne, boundary pushing theatre and the Hamlet Apocalypse
After a decade of creating and touring their unique experimental theatre to polarised audiences and critical acclaim, the Brisbane-based The Danger Ensemble have relocated to Melbourne and are celebrating with the return of The Hamlet Apocalypse. Part fiction, part reality, part Hamlet, part apocalypse, the play features seven actors playing themselves performing Hamlet as the apocalypse approaches. Til Knowles chatted to director Steven Mitchell Wright about staging a play nine years later, creating work that isn’t boring, and why the Danger Ensemble decided it was time to move to Melbourne.
The Danger Ensemble is renowned for a wide range of boundary-pushing, entertaining theatre. Why did you pick the Hamlet Apocalypse as your first show to perform as a Melbourne-based company?
It’s a tested and tried show.
We know how it works and to a certain extent we know how audiences feel about it. Our repertoire is quite varied; some more experimental than others, some more successful than others but we know what this show is. We did a season of it last year in Brisbane to celebrate our 10th Birthday as a company and it was just before that we were speaking with Theatre Works. It seemed like the right choice.
You’ve actually directed this show before, and even staged it in Melbourne, how has it changed in the intervening nine years? Has the purpose of staging it or the intention behind it changed much since 2009? What do you think makes the work endure, and why do you keep wanting to stage it?
It’s a very different show now – we understand the mechanisms at play in the work much more now.
The work always changes because the actors are playing themselves in the work – their real life dynamics with each other and their relationships to their lives and deaths shift the work, and not in small ways.
I think the work endures because it’s about really universal, but also really personal, things. If I had to (and I don’t like to) name the one thing this work is about, it’s mortality and everything that falls under that. Until we can live forever that will remain relevant.
What’s been the strangest audience reaction you’ve had from The Hamlet Apocalypse?
I think my favourite was actually a reviewer who said something to the effect of, “ I’m sure there’s an audience for this kind of things but it’s not me – I hate theatre with side lighting. It’s just so un-natural!”
Oh! I’m reminded now too of another reviewer saying something along the lines of, “Loved it! Needs more apocalypse though.”
Literally, the world is ending throughout the entire show. I think they were expecting zombies.
Shakespeare’s work is still lauded because of its strong examination of existential angst and human emotion. What do you think the effect of layering a meta-play over Hamlet is?
I don’t like to presume the experience for the audience, but I can tell you that the experience for the creators and actors in the room is that the existential musing that Hamlet is known for become urgent and much less lofty in the face of the apocalypse.
You hear and feel it throughout the work. These lines and ideas that are suddenly so concrete. I think the first time I notice it is in the first scene of Hamlet proper (in our version) Katrina Cornwell as Gertrude says to Mitch Wood as Hamlet, “thou know’st tis common, all that lives must die passing through nature to eternity.” That feels very different when the actor saying it believes their life will end at any time.
How has the freedom of the actors playing themselves shaped the work?
It hasn’t shaped the work – it is the work. The fictional conceit is that these actors, the real life people in front of you, are about to die but they are also about to perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
This production has quite a few high school audiences, and teachers and students alike rave about it. Where there any productions that influenced you as a teenager? What were they, and how did they impact you?
It was the shows that I hated that influenced me the most. Shows that made me feel bored, actively disinterested, like the audience wasn’t needed. I recall feeling so frequently disheartened and angry because I loved the idea of theatre, but never the reality of it. If I’m honest – I don’t think much has changed. 90% of the theatre I see is boring. I’m not moved and I’m not excited.
I want theatre to excite and challenge – I want it to have energy and passion. I don’t care if it’s a “well-made play” and the protagonist is interesting. Performance is thousands of years old – its history and forms are diverse and challenging, reflexive, political, ugly and evolving BUT in the Western world we have clung desperately to this approximation of realism/naturalism-singular-narrative-very-white-very-straight-very-safe-very-television idea of what theatre SHOULD be. We are told this is what theatre IS, and the only way to do it well is to do it like this. However, this definition has only really been around for the last couple of hundred years.
In the shadow of Shakespeare the likes of Ibsen, Chekov and Stanislavski experimented with form and ideas which have been taken up with such reverence (by film, theatre and television) to the exclusion of all else, but there is so much more to our artform. I guess you could say those shows then and similar ones now continue to put a fire under me to make work that isn’t that. That looks to our history outside of the canon or challenges and reframes works within it (such as The Hamlet Apocalypse) and creates work for our present and our future.
What led to the company’s decision to move to Melbourne? Why not Sydney, or Berlin?
11 years ago, The Danger Ensemble was founded and named such – not to demonstrate an aesthetic or overt risqué attitude, but to remind the company to always be uncomfortable. To be in danger of failing. For over a decade the company received so much opportunity and support from Brisbane.
As our birthday rolled around the company asked itself big questions, including are we relevant? Does our investigation sustain us? Should we continue as a company? Is Brisbane the best place for us to be? Are we still uncomfortable?
It was the final question that really struck a chord – are we still uncomfortable. The answer was no. We had become very comfortable. So the decision was made – we wanted to be uncomfortable again – to redefine and introduce ourselves to new audiences and venues and continue to grow in a new place.
As for why Melbourne? For me, it is one of the best cities in the world.
What do you love most about Melbourne?
I had been here about a month when I was on a tram at about 2am and I looked around and saw four people in their late 70s or early 80s, obviously a bit tipsy, having an impassioned conversation about something. It struck me that I never really saw the presence of older people in social spaces in Brisbane. Then I continued to look around the tram and saw queer people, people of colour, people speaking languages that weren’t my own, and I felt lighter. I realised that’s what I love most about Melbourne – it is the presence and visibility of simply more people; cultures, sub-cultures, histories and languages.
What do you miss most about Brisbane?
People, the City Cat (The Brisbane River Ferry) and good sushi – what’s with Melbourne not having good sushi everywhere? I feel like in Brisbane you couldn’t go a few kilometres without finding a great sushi place.
The Hamlet Apocalypse is on at 8pm at Theatreworks from 7 – 18 November 2018. Tickets and further information about the Danger Ensemble can be found at the Danger Ensemble’s website.