First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee on The Danger Ensemble’s boundary-pushing The Hamlet Apocalypse
In our contemporary world, amid the slings and arrows of social media and the well-fed bigotries of the media, we get to ponder the question of what will kill us first: climate change or trigger-happy leaders? In such times, what do we most need? The Hamlet Apocalypse argues that we need art.
The Danger Ensemble has generated a reputation for pushing boundaries with past productions such as Sons of Sin and Macbeth, which makes me wish I’d seen more of their shows. Originally based in Queensland, the Danger Ensemble recently relocated to Melbourne, bringing with them this acclaimed production of The Hamlet Apocalypse, which premiered at La Boite in 2011 and later toured to the Adelaide Fringe.
As the name suggests, the show is about a group of actors staging Hamlet on the eve of the apocalypse. The actors play themselves when they’re “off-stage” or in moments when they step out of their Shakespearean roles. As a story about a family’s personal apocalypse, Hamlet feels like an apt play-within-a-play to run in parallel to the end of days and the madness that comes with it. The questioning of Hamlet’s sanity works well alongside the gradual loss of sanity of the cast, as they face their own demise.
We enter the auditorium to close-to-uncomfortably-loud rock music, to find the actors already on stage. The set, designed by director Steven Mitchell Wright and Oscar Clark, is a grey box lined with plastic from floor to ceiling that seems to seal off the space. It’s clear the performers will have no exits during this show. Black-clad actors are scattered across the space, between a table, chairs, and ladders. It’s a space that is fated to be littered with papers, chalk dust, its floor bloodied with red wine.
Each actor lines up at the front of the stage to say their name, the part they play, and their character’s motivations. I wasn’t sure if this part was necessary, to be honest; it felt a little bit “and now we’re doing a play, and these are my intentions.” It reminded me too much of character profile exercises we used to do during my acting training and gave me the feeling that the company didn’t trust the audience to “get it”. What follows is strong enough without it.
The characters seem real, because they are. “The mash up of personal truth and experiences on stage and a characters’ journey creates a tension that we really enjoy,” Steven Mitchell Wright said in an interview about the show. “It’s difficult and it’s not always comfortable, but it’s rich territory.”
As an actor, I find the idea of each performer following their own personal journey towards their impending death to be terrifying prospect. This is, of course, the point: the sliver of self injected into the production adds to the authenticity of their suffering through the performance, and the audience definitely picks up on it. The pain that takes place on stage is a twisted amalgam of the actors’ lives and their characters’ journeys, and these flashes of humanity haunt us and implicate us in what is happening.
It’s hard to pin-point stand-out performers, because they’re all strong. This is partly due, I think, to the authentic grief within their performances. Thomas Hutchins is exceptional as the leader of the madness, tasked with maintaining the integrity of the production. The dynamic created by Hutchins’ nagging fellow actors is often a source of great comedy as he switches from majestic command to snappy petulance. Eventually he breaks down while speaking of a deeply personal tragedy, and his faithful ensemble brings him back into their staged world, which is the only thing holding him together.
Peta/Laertes/ Rosencrantz (Peta Ward) is remarkable, also bringing comedy to the performance. It’s a relief for the audience, but exasperating for Thomas because it drags him back into the awful present. She’s unhappy about being cast in two male roles from the get-go (sister, we’ve all been there). Ward makes it her mission to make others laugh, to keep herself from weeping, for the tragedy, for herself, for the world.
Nicole/Ophelia (Nicole Harvey) is a beautiful and enigmatic presence. Much of what she confesses is lost in the cacophony of Shakespeare’s text and the grief-stricken uproar of her fellow players. This also felt like a commentary on the role of Ophelia, and other female characters like her. These women are an expression of male brutality, through the suffering they endure for men. Somehow, through her stoic silence and refusal to acknowledge her feelings for Wood (or for anything), Harvey both rages against this construct and remains inside it.
Mitch/Hamlet (Mitch Wood) longs for Nicole’s companionship but, like Hutchins, she demands that they remain committed to portraying the ill-fated lovers Ophelia and Hamlet. Wood casts her aside as the young prince does in the story, perhaps Harvey’s attempt to avoid an added element of tragedy to the nightmare that results in their eventual death (in both realities). Kat/Gertrude (Katrina Cornwell) is the picture of composure, in her assigned regal parental role in the cast. When she slips down into misery-induced mania, she takes Hutchins with her.
I didn’t really notice Dan Alexander’s subtle composition until the final ten minutes of the show, because the volume gradually increases as it progresses. It adds considerably to the intensity of the countdown to everyone’s death. The countdown to the end of the world is signalled by an unseen source of high-pitched sound and bright light. The sound is so invasive: itmade people jump in their seats, some even dropped stuff on the floor. It pissed me off after a while, because it drags you out of the performance, returning you to a startled audience member wondering what the fuck just happened.
I understand the point was to bring us out of Hamlet, into the actors’ harsh reality, but it took me out of the production altogether. It piles on the feeling that we are watching something very real, that this isn’t just a lovely night at the theatre but rather a genuine experience of people terrified for their lives. These little jolts remind us of our roles as voyeurs in this story. However, it’s a brutal sound: elderly folks, people with dodgy tickers, or epilepsy might want to give this one a miss. The countdown is from 10, so yep, you cop it ten times.
The costumes, co-designed by Oscar Clark and altered by Jennifer Bismire, were one of my favourite elements. In varying shades of faded colours, some in tatters, they look like they’ve been fashioned from whatever was lying around. They range from harness-like tunics, frilled collars, puffy shorts to an oddly constructed hoop skirt.
If there’s a message, it is that if we insist on clinging to hope in a staged reality while the world outside crumbles around us, we can’t simply wait to speak. As one performer finds in the final line-up, waiting for the right time can mean that we will die without ever getting to say what we wanted to the ones we love, or doing what was right when we had the chance.
In a troubled world where everyone is travelling through varying stages of grief alongside others who have their own journeys, all we can do is hope that we can take turns in pulling each other back up again. So that maybe we all might, somehow, live.
The Hamlet Apocalypse, directed and designed by Steven Mitchell Wright, designer & co-costume designer Oscar Clark. Sound design and Composition by Dane Alexander, lighting design by Ben Hughes, wardrobe assistance and costume alterations by Jennifer Bismire, Performed by Chris Beckey, Katrina Cornwell, Nicole Harvey, Thomas Hutchins, Polly Sará. At Theatreworks. Until November 18. Bookings
Warning: this is a lockout performance. Latecomers are not permitted once the show has commenced. Refunds will not be issued to latecomers.
Theatre Works seating allows for wheelchair access and the use of mobility aids. Please discuss your requirements with our box office staff at the time of booking.