Review By Lisa Lanzi
This work is a testament to the talent, strength and integrity of a collective of entirely female and non-binary theatre-makers who desire to effect change in the art. In the words of the collective, they intend to challenge “… preconceived notions of what women are and should be, and what theatre is and should be.” Brava!
In the time of Shakespeare men commonly played all roles, including the female. So why not shift Hamlet to an all-female/non binary cast in the 21st Century, even if we humans are nowhere near as advanced as we should be by now in the equality stakes. Here the cast each portray a professional actor as well as one or more Shakespearian roles in a touring, female-led version of Hamlet. It is the last time they will perform the play due to its cancellation by the unseen producers. With many opinions around the misogyny of this decision to cancel, the actors begin to rebel and argue and plot. With varying degrees of confidence the ‘actors’ decide Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its inherent chauvinism no longer serves them and as they take to the stage, the ‘performance’ decays as narrative and personas shift and chunks of the text are altered. Finally, a newly conceptualised hybrid work morphs into being with eloquent and incisive writing from Lucy Haas-Hennessy and Poppy Mee.
It is not just the text and narrative that has been transmuted, the audience too must work for their gratification. Hamlet in the Other Room exists and is performed in two spaces - a ‘dressing room’ and a more traditional black box theatre space. Prior to admission, the audience learns the rules and are invited to move between the two spaces at will. Or not. Whatever you choose, you will only ever see parts of the whole. This device gives the viewer a certain agency as well as a tinge of FOMO. One can hear enticing snippets of what is unfolding next door and as we traverse the right angle corridor between the rooms, the action fades out then in as you arrive and enter the next space. And so on, back and forth.
In dressing room scenes we are privy to conversations, sometimes more than one at a time, plus costume changes, and we can choose where to focus our attention or allow fragments to wash over us. There are both moments of realism and magic realism as the soon-to-be unemployed actors attempt to take charge of their own destinies and rage about patriarchy and its systems. On a mostly bare stage space, parts of Hamlet are performed with diligence until the actors become more mischievous and daring then backstage decisions/intuitions become onstage action. In the final scene, the entire audience is shepherded into the ‘theatre’ space as we witness the fragmentation of Shakespeare’s words and the emergence of a fresh, empowered, emotive and meaningful performative paradigm. The ‘new’ work denounces hierarchy, patriarchy and particularly the abusive treatment of Ophelia. Two highlights for me in this last section were the elevated use of movement and the superb, ethereal vocal harmonies.
This immersive performance is somewhat reminiscent of Punchdrunk’s New York hit Sleep No More, a re-imagined, site-specific Macbeth which deposits audiences into a wild, slightly terrifying adventure through decrepit hallways and rooms in the ‘McKittrick Hotel’ - a created environment within a block of old warehouses spans five floors of simultaneous theatrical action which no audience member can ever hope to see in total. While the Good Company ensemble only have two spaces, they use the immersive and sometimes interactive strategies reasonably well.
The actors, and director Zola Allen, are all graduates of Adelaide College of the Arts intensive, multi-layered theatre course and there is not one performance I would fault. Cast/Devisers Chloe Willis, Ellen Graham, Erin Perrey, Evie Leonard, Katherine Sortini, Kidaan Zelleke, Lucy Haas-Hennessy, Mikayla Rudd & Poppy Mee are all fiercely watchable and highly capable performers. AC Arts (formerly Centre For The Performing Arts), a TAFE course, has consistently produced thinking actors, makers, teachers and directors successful in many areas of our craft and indeed the world - coincidently, one graduate performed regularly in Sleep No More in New York. Despite still having some fine teachers in the ranks, it is a travesty that the original course has been whittled away and de-valued of late by short-sighted middle management and governmental bean-counters. Australia needs to maintain wide-ranging, practice-based training for actors so that we might continue to have performers of high calibre like this Collective.
While this work is an ensemble effort, the sure directorial hand of Zola Allen is marked. With a large cast and complex choices abounding the considered direction is important. Excellent and thoughtful design is also an integral element with the two spaces being defined individually and use of effective colour block costuming beside some stronger character-based apparel. Katherine Cooper and Bianka Kennedy collaboratively dress the ‘backstage’ area with a realistic, comfortably messy feel whereas the stage space is a minimalist womblike purple/pink slash of colour with little furniture and cartoon-like silhouetted patterning behind the ‘throne’ and delineating the doorways. Sound design from Belinda Gehlert and lighting by Hannah Aylett complete the picture with subtlety and boldness, as required.
There is much complexity within Hamlet in the other Room and I would very much enjoy the opportunity to read the extraordinary text from the last section to better grasp the poetic expositions. While not perfect, yet, the whole concept, delivery and structure of multiple realities within one playspace is a bold and brilliant choice matched with exceptional performances. This is a work that should be seen so that we as theatre-going folk can enter into and progress the discourse started here as well as support the goals of The Good Company Theatre Collective. I look forward to their next production.
Photo Credit: Jamie Hornsby