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Message or story?


on Thursday 26 April 2012

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the eponymous prince calls Denmark a prison and when his childhood friends disagree he remarks “Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Sometimes for an audience, or a troupe of actors, your fate in a theatre may be beyond your control. Certainly in this case, the capable acting talent were confined by a particular vision, one that I’m not sure was particularly suited to Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine.



We didn’t get much of Hamlet‘s meaty existential drama when the players performed a very quick summary of Hamlet in modern colloquial English in a waiting area just before the theatre performance. I suppose this prologue was intended to give any unfamiliar audience members a very basic understanding of the play and relationships between the characters, of which the most important for Hamletmachine are Hamlet and Ophelia given they are the only two to have voices in the play. The flippant manner in which the prologue was related was quite a jarring contrast to the play itself, and it was not always possible to see and hear the players as they roamed around the space.

Inside the theatre, I expected that the audience would view a translated version of Hamletmachine and it seemed that the text used was a different translation and a revised version of the text I re-read in preparation, (that in Carl Weber’s Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage, 1984) which is fine. The problem with this production was that tinkering with a very carefully constructed text bent it to breaking point. For example, in scene four of the text I’m familiar with, a photograph of Heiner Müller is produced and soon after torn up. To paraphrase Müller’s description of this act, it is a symbolic representation of the change in perception experienced by the playwright through writing a play, the old is discarded and a new perception must emerge from the process. Broken Mirror’s production merely projects Müller’s image on a screen, and hence the provocation of the audience is lost. There were a number of other examples where an image from the text was only partially reproduced or was removed from its context making it ineffective.

Müller’s writing has been described as having an “anti-structure” – it avoids a linear plot – but it is not composed of unconnected events. The deliberately crafted fragments are designed to present questions but (as Müller’s has expressed in interviews) leave the audience to form their own answers, if they so choose. Given this, it seems a curious choice to use the play in a didactic manner; in this instance the production has the stated aim of highlighting domestic violence. The imagery of the play is often extreme or bizarre, so against this background when we see a man slap a woman, why would we think that this relates to domestic violence and not think of it as allegory as in other parts of the play? Ah, because we’re told that it represents domestic violence due to the projected vision and accompanying sound of victims telling their stories of physical abuse. It seems that the director doesn’t share Müller’s attitude towards his audience.

Another casualty of the modifications to the text is the momentum of the piece – on the page there is a feeling of escalating darkness that makes it compelling even while it is difficult to understand. The opening scene of this production suppressed the urgency of the play by showing an ”actors workshop” where actors tried different methods of performing the same funeral scene. I didn’t know what to expect from this production, but I certainly didn’t expect to be somewhat bored by repetition. I also found that having the speaking parts of actor/Hamlet and actor/Ophelia split between, or delivered by, three males and three females respectively often reduced the impact of the lines, especially when three voices speaking at once made the speech unclear.

I have no doubt that the director has a genuine desire to raise awareness of the issue of domestic violence, but I don’t think using this play was the way to do it. The violence is all physical, neglecting other forms such as emotional violence. In this regard, the federal government’s campaign with the slogan “Don’t cross the line” was much more successful in articulating the various forms of domestic violence and showing them all as unacceptable. As for how this production works as a piece of theatre, I came away feeling that I hadn’t actually seen Hamletmachine and the tepid and brief applause at the end seemed to suggest that the audience were happy that their sentence had finished.

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