For anyone who is inclined to believe they’re not a fan of performance art, Hamlet Machine is not a baptism of fire, but a baptism of dirt and UV lighting. I’ll start off with the good parts. The way that the company transformed Volcano’s space was simply amazing, sets changing sometimes only half an hour after their debut dressing.
Particularly impressive were the more overtly interactive spaces.
This is where the play shines, immersing yourself in world of the playwright and putting the audience inside the fishbowl of spectatorship. When it works, it lifts to the show to something far livelier than the sum of its parts. The set and script prompt you to respond directly to the actors at various points, poke holes in the play’s logic or simply try to position yourself with more power.
One thing I was sceptical of was the fact that the actors were occasionally instructed to touch the audience. While personally I only found it momentarily irritating it’s easy to show imagine some people reacting badly to it in an already sensory assaulting show. I’m not fundamentally against it – but the fact that there was no prior warning isn’t entirely sensible.
The decision to allow audiences to bring in their drinks to the show was also badly thought out – even if you don’t spill your drinks onto the floor of the interactive sets, you’ll feel them churn with discomfort throughout the play.
The actors were all superb in each of their facets, their voices blending with intermittent physicality. You could believe every turn of despair and mundanity. As a chorus, however, individual talents are lost in the repeated chant.
And in the script itself. The scatological reprises got stale quickly. The ultra-metaphor became bland just at the point of discerning meaning.
While the story behind the story is incredibly moving – a harrowed survivor of WW2 and post war Germany, anything truly profound is buried in the bluntly hammered points. For something created to shock and question, it’s a shame that I can remember no standout lines or even phrases. (Except for one which caused my eyes to roll.)
While the play is meant to represent a total loss of innocence, the absurdity is childlike in itself. Oddly enough, the play generated more goodwill as a deconstruction of creative work than as a meditation on cruelty. Somehow the sheer reach diluted the horror, from profound to merely irritating.
The theatre of the absurd is often loved but I was struggling to decide whether the audience’s intermittent laughter was out of shrewd appreciation or sheer manic exhaustion with the show.
Quite possibly both.
I think the small ‘introductory tour’ that we had before the play would have been much better positioned afterwards, to give a more enriched sense of context, and the opportunity to grapple with it in somewhat ‘real time.’ An enhanced sense of conversation might have generated more appreciation for the play.
To give the play its credit, I’ve researched the reception to other staging’s of the play and the bare text. While a significant majority of critics have given the live play rave reviews, the reception of the bare text is somewhat oddly more tepid. Leave this one to those audiences who will enjoy the fruitless task of interpretation more than they hope to enjoy the play itself. The rest of us, uncultured as we are, are probably better off sitting at the bar.