The premise of the Hamlet Apocalypse is damn intriguing. Seven actors stage Hamlet as the world ends, breaking down as they try to marry the bard’s words with the imminent doomsday. A lot of the dialogue in the breakdowns, the moments that the cast break away from Hamlet, is improvised. While director Steven Mitchell Wright says this improvisation allows the actors to tap into the emotion of whatever they’re feeling on the night, the result is a very messy, unclear emotional centre instead of a gut punch.
My memories of seeing the first production of the Hamlet Apocalypse in 2009 at La Mama are hazy, filled with a strange green light, a screamed countdown and a use of space that made the small stage feel appropriately claustrophobic. Nine years later, now at Theatre Works, the play is staged in a much larger space and by a new cast: Chris Beckey, Katrina Cornwell, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sará, Peta Ward and Mitch Wood. The apocalyptic set up is a throw-away line and a bunch of implications rather than any doomsday descriptions, because the play is far more interested in its characters/actors reactions to the world ending than the how and why of it all.
The lighting, designed by Ben Hughes, is one of the most striking parts of the production. High contrasts and washes of cool colours create a dark, tense space that at once suggests intimacy and isolation.The costumes give a displaced, urgent, independent theatre vibe to the play-within-the-play, torn remnants of a by-gone era. However, I did really question the need for a young woman to undress. Shedding costumes, masks and skins would be an appropriate metaphor for people’s facades falling away at the end of the world, but when a director undresses only his youngest two actors, it feels gratuitous rather than thematically pointed. Also, anyone who finds that dissonant, grinding edgy theatre noise as grating as I do will struggle with it being played ten times alongside a blinding light and a collective shouted countdown (I jumped every time it was played – towards the end I could pick when it was coming and would close my eyes and clutch at my armrests to try and minimise the damage).
It seems strange to say about a play were the actors are playing themselves, but the characters are underdeveloped. With little conscious plotting or scripted dialogue, it makes it very difficult for the audience to see a motivation or a rationale behind a character’s action unless its just an explicit statement about their feelings. None of the acting is bad, so much as unfocused. The improvisation also makes the scripted elements far more obvious. When Mitch, our Hamlet, declares his love for Nicole, our Ophelia, as Hamlet attempts to tell Ophelia he never loved her, it should be a heart-wrenching contrast. Instead, the moment is distracted from by the background actions of the other actors on stage and it is quickly lost in the noise of the play, never really followed up.
The lack of focus means that the audience’s attention is not held by one actor at one time, so there are moments that are caught by some and lost by others. This would be fine, if it were a technique used with precision rather than for the entire second half of the play. The key moment I caught that fellow audience members might not have is Chris Beckey’s revelation that they are non-binary, the freedom that comes with finally finding a place to express that and to be accepted for it, and the fear of losing it, of having spent most of a life pretending to be something you’re not. It was the kind of quiet, poignant, improvised monologue that The Hamlet Apocalypse wants to believe it is comprised almost entirely of. Instead, these moments are lost amongst chugged wine, thrown papers and clouds of flour.
Ultimately, The Hamlet Apocalypse is mostly noise. Actors screech over each other in a flurry about the stage, trying to raise the tension and the pace as the apocalypse nears. Yet all all this motion and sound really achieves is confusion, as the audience are left without a way in to the action, without a point of focus on, and no easy way to actually hear what is being said. This play wants to be challenging and uncomfortable, a thought-provoking meditation on mortality. But an audience still needs a way in, a connection to unravel, even in the most dissonant theatre.
The Hamlet Apocalypse is on at 8pm at Theatre Works until 18 November 2018. Tickets are available from the Theatre Works website.