‘Beau is a body inhabited by ghosts that in turn summon ghosts’: Robert Reid on Dickie Beau’s Re-member Me
A hospital bed is wheeled on stage behind the curtain. The silhouette of Dickie Beau does stretches and yoga on the bed to the chorus of YMCA. The yoga forms look suspiciously like the shapes of the letters. The focal distance of the light causes his silhouette to blur: light curves round his body and becomes indistinct on the screen, giving us an elongated version of his figure, long-necked and round-headed, thin-shouldered and alien.
Actors are a kind of alien, I think, although at this point I don’t know Re-Member Me is going to be about actors.
The stage is littered with disassembled mannequins draped with bits of costume: a royal robe, a red coat of the English imperial army. A book, in a tight spotlight, is placed downstage towards us. Projected onto a large screen towering over the stage is a silhouette of Dickie Beau, posed like Rodin’s Thinker, above the quote: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as a pronounced it to you, trippingly on the lounge.”
It’s Hamlet coaching the Players on their performance, in order to catch the King. In the original, of course, the quote goes on to warn: “but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.” I wonder what Hamlet might make of Beau’s approach to performance which, for the past 10 years, has focused on lip synch. According to Beau, lip synch “innately creates the presence of an absence and so it is the most apt for use in the theatre, which is an inherently haunted space.”
Recorded voices fill the theatre. They’re a little indistinct. This is the “Human Hamlet Mix Tape”, a mash-up of the Hamlets of famous actors. Famous English actors, I hasten to add. The voices are muffled by age. We listen to swallows and clicks and pauses, the breathing and snorting of old men remembering and speaking those memories. We see the physical qualities of faces that no longer seem to support themselves, collapsing over their palettes like fleshy avalanches, burying consonants and plosives in distinguished, British drawls.
Beau has now come forward from behind the curtain, mouthing along with the recordings, in a kind of verbatim theatre that gives body to these pre-recorded recollections and performances. It’s a parade of voices, English, educated, urbane. Jonathon Pryce’s Hamlet in 1980, possessed by the spirit of his dead father. Daniel Day Lewis’s Hamlet in 1989, which the actor abandoned in the middle of the show one night, after the Ghost’s exit in Act 1 Sc 5, which is rumoured to have been because he witnessed a vision of his own dead father.
The first words I hear with clarity as they bubble up out of the soup of mumbling and harrumphing are, I think initially, in the voice of Sir Ian McKellen. But soon I recognise that it’s Withnail’s Uncle Monty, ruefully saying that “There is a point in a young man’s life when he realises that he will never play the Dane.”
I feel like I miss the significance of a lot of things. I’m not a rabid Hamlet fan in the way that some are, particularly the more “Trekkie” of the Shakespeare tragics. I’m not as enamoured of the great actors either, nor their performances of the “great roles”. This kind of story-telling about individuals smacks of “Great Man” history too much for my liking.
The audience laughs along, perhaps recognising mannerisms or details that are lost on me, although it seems that the laughter is responding more to Beau’s meticulous attention to physical and mimetic detail than to any specific observations. His face pauses, contorts, sneers and leers through hundreds of malformations in his reproductions. It’s simultaneously an impressive feat of observation and curiously distancing. The recordings, despite the sonorous resonance of the actors, have a hollow quality that doesn’t fill the room the way the present human voice does.
Other moments feature recorded footage of Beau’s head and shoulders on screen embodying the prerecorded voices. The voices synch up more believably in these sections: the synchronisation is more precise on camera, where the vicissitudes of live performance can be smoothed and edited down. It’s so smooth that my ear and eye are convinced that Beau is actually speaking, not miming: only McKellen and Sir John Gielgud’s voices seem distinct from Beau’s, and this is only because I recognise their distinctive tones. And even these might be convincing impersonations.
As the program is at pains to point out, these are not impersonations. Even so, I begin to feel that I can see familiar expressions from these famous actors reflected in Beau’s face. He describes his process for finding these performances as trying to “imagine the sound of the voice in question travelling through the organism that is my body, and letting my body make whatever shapes feel appropriate to that image … the idea is ‘re-memberment’ – putting a voice back together through my body”.
The voices he re-embodies recall their experiences of seeing or playing Hamlet. Beau is a body inhabited by ghosts that in turn summon ghosts from their own memories. They talk about the importance of the role of Hamlet for an actor, evoking the Hamlets of Lawrence Olivier, John Barrymore, Peter O’Toole and Kenneth Branagh. No Anthony Sher, I notice. Nor David Tennant.
The recorded voices of these actors tell us that the true voice of the drama speaks to us through actors. McKellen complains, just before the final black out, that when the lists of great Hamlets are compiled by reviewers or academics, nobody ever mentions his. Everybody laughs at the great man’s self-deprecation.
Academic Andy Lavender describes Hamlet as “the gateway through which an actor passes to a more exalted realm”. For this community, Hamlet is both a rite of passage and a ritual of belonging. Shakespeare has become totemic of a certain kind of theatre, a certain kind of culture, and Hamlet is the sine qua non of Shakespearian roles. The plays of Shakespeare – or more accurately the industries that have grown up to support the idea of those plays as a symbol of great (western) culture – have become emblematic of English-centred imperialism and Anglo cultural superiority. I reflect for a while on the shibboleths of this community.
Beau’s research into these Hamlets, and in particular his investigation of the Day Lewis version, leads him to the performance given by Ian Charleson. Perhaps best remembered for his portrayal of runner Eric Liddell in the film Chariots of Fire, Charleson took on the role when Day Lewis abandoned it, although he was in the advanced stages of AIDS. (He died shortly afterwards).
Beau’s interviewees – McKellen, director Sean Mathis, Sir Richard Eyre (former artistic director of the National Theatre), Stephen Ashby (former dresser at the theatre) and other voices – drift from recalling various Hamlets into the story of Charleson’s performance. They describe the difficulty of being gay in England at the time, then at the height of anxiety and misinformation about the AIDS epidemic. Though the lighting was dimmed to help obscure the physical depredations of Charleson’s disease, the spread of Kaposi’s sarcoma, his skeletal body and his hollow face all betrayed his condition. One of the voices tells us that the disease outed Charleson in that performance. McKellen tells us that when “that Hamlet” (Charleson’s) talked about death, it was the actor speaking through the character.
All of Charleson’s story is “spoken” by the screen Beaus, while the on-stage Beau reassembles the pieces of the shop window dummies. Literally re-membering them, re-figuring them and dressing them in the costumes scattered around the stage taken from famous interpretations of the Dane. This story is so powerful that it hushes the audience: it’s been pretty vocal, but for this we are all in rapt, still silence. It’s as if we’re both present at the interviews and also seeing Charleson’s performance.
Listening to these stories, I’m struck by the sense of community. Yes, it’s a community of wealthy educated white men in England and so all the clichés of old fashioned theatre and British privilege are there; but I’m struck by the care and respect they show for each other, the intimate knowledge gained by living and working together over a lifetime. This is what I feel that, at its heart, Re-Member Me is about. It’s not only about the Knights of the Realm who have played the Dane on the great stages of the empire: it’s also about us, out here at the fringes of the old colonies, finding our own belonging in these memories.
The recalled Hamlets and the story of Charleson’s performance seem like two halves of separate, though related, wholes. The two dramaturgical worlds sit slightly awkwardly side by side, smearing one set of ideas into another a little inelegantly. The first remains unresolved, and the second arrives confusingly, all of a sudden. This may reflect the unfolding of the conversations in the interviews, but more attention to the dramaturgy of the whole might have given a much needed clarity to the experience, and more seamlessly drawn meaning from the mash-up.
The only words to which Beau gives his own voice are from T.S. Eliot’s The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. “No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / An attendant lord, one that will do / to swell a progress or start a scene or two…” It’s well chosen, neatly answering the Withnail and I quote that opens this world. But, perhaps unfairly, I find Beau’s voice lets it down. Beau puts himself beside some of the greatest English speakers and actors in the world, and the comparison tells: there’s a thinness in timbre, a shaking, nasal quality, that doesn’t quite fill the room. The real mastery on display here is the virtuosity of his face.
Re-Member Me, created and performed by Dickie Beau. Collaborator and director, Jan-Willem van den Bosch. Lighting design, Marty Langthorne. Featuring the voices of Sir Ian McKellen, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Richard Eyre, Stephen Ashby, Sean Mathias, Suzanne Bertish and John Peter. In the Fairfax Studio as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available