Emily Vanderploeg reviews Hamletmachine, the new immersive theatre experience from Volcano Theatre Company in Swansea.
Like previous Volcano productions, Hamletmachine is a promenade performance (“keep your coats on,” is the advice) and the venue – the former Iceland supermarket on Swansea High Street, repurposed by Volcano as a theatre and gallery – lends itself particularly well to the dark and surreal world of the play by Heiner Müller, conceived and directed by Paul Davies. Without giving too much away, which would defeat the purpose of the experience of Hamletmachine, audience members are led through the labyrinthine belly of the building, the misty dark (and on Wednesday evening, dramatically flooded) streets and alleyways of its perimeter, and into an abstractly absurd world cast in glaring red, from set to costume to lighting to cans of Coca-Cola – a persistent metaphor that one is free to choose the meaning of.
The play harkens back to the German Democratic Republic of the 1980s and calls to mind images of stone-faced steroidal athletes and a general sense of unease, which is artfully and relentlessly conveyed by the play’s four main actors Cecilia Crossland, Christopher Elson, Mairi Phillips, and Manon Wilkinson. Indeed, the sheer physical energy they use in performing this play was tiring even to watch, which perhaps is part of the message of Hamletmachine – it is not a comfortable play and it doesn’t want to be. Praise must be given to Movement Director, Catherine Bennet, whose influence was evident in the precise postures, swift movements and blocking that the actors employed throughout, weaving through audience members and spaces and forcing spectators to stop and look at their tableaux. Often the actors break the fourth wall, mocking each other and making us aware that they know we’re all “just watching a play”, and yet they also make it clear that they are not to be trusted, flipping back into character with the duplicitousness of Claudius at a moment’s notice and, given the immersive nature of the play and its physical space, there is an unnerving feeling of being unable to escape it; the only way out is to see it through to the end.
With this anxious feeling in mind, there is enough humour to lighten the intensity, and some delightfully playful interactive elements of the set, as well as what in hindsight acted as a sort of interval, when a member of Volcano staff told the audience about the history of the play and Müller. And yet, an actual interval might have been preferable, as one was left wondering whether this was a part of the play or not, and ultimately being told about the play in the middle of it rather broke the spell we had been immersed in and made it almost difficult to re-enter the intense world of the play itself, which had much more to follow.
In watching (taking part in?) this play, I was reminded of a German flatmate I once had who casually mentioned that she didn’t try a Coca-Cola until the age of eleven. “Why?” I asked innocently. “Well, because of the Wall,” she replied. Thinking of the subsequent hush that fell on the room, as well as the recent commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the photograph that has been circulating online of an American civil servant posing before the Berlin Wall memorial with the caption, “See? Walls work,” made the entirety of Hamletmachine – its disturbing humour and the sense of being in it, whether we liked or not – an extremely timely production and a worthy piece of theatre in these uncertain times.
HAMLETMACHINE is on at Volcano until November 28th.
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Emily Vanderploeg is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.