24 October 2007

European House

MIAF 2007
European House: Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words
24 October 2007
Playhouse, the Arts Centre


At first it’s a bit like watching a Big Brother on stage. Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the voyeuristic nature of reality television. However this work is nothing like exploitative telly. It gently unfolds into a complex, mesmerising and thoroughly original piece of theatre. Teatre Lliure’s European House: Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words must be one of the highlights of the last week of this amazing Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Teatre Lliure was formed in Spain in 1976 by a group of independent theatre professionals and has become one of their countries leading companies. European House is exactly that; a prologue to Hamlet, performed without words, set in a European house.

If you read the program (which the festival are giving out this week - I liked downloading mine before I went out, but understand why people were missing them), you know who appears from Shakespeare’s great work. If you know Hamlet well, don’t read the character names, because it’s much more fun to recognize each as they appear. If you don’t know Hamlet, knowing their names means little.

Two maids are working in a large, modern house when a young man and his mother arrive home after a funeral. We do know his name is Hamlet. Soon an older male relative appears. He acts like an uncle. Then Hamlet’s best friend joins them. Then a neighbour and his two children ring the bell. This young man and woman are also friends of Hamlet. Then two more of Hamlet’s mates join the grieving household. The last two are the only ones who are not immediately recognisable, but only because Guildenstern has undergone a sex change. Throughout their interactions, an older man wanders unseen and takes notes. He just might be the ghost of Hamlet’s recently deceased father. How he choses to finally reveal himself to Horatio is one of the funniest and most original moments I’ve seen in any interpretation or working of this play.

We see seven rooms. We watch the characters as they move through the house. There are no words. None are needed. Their relationships are clear. Knowing the story and the tragedy that is about to unfold heightens the enjoyment and admiration of the work, but it isn’t necessary to know everything you need to know about them. All amateur - and professional - Shakespeare performers should see this production, just to understand how to portray complex status and relationships without relying on dialogue.

European House gently and seamlessly develops its complexity. It’s as perfectly structured and paced as, well - a Shakespearean tragedy. At first we watch the very mundane act of making coffee in one room. By the end we are looking in all seven rooms as each of the characters experience their own inner grief and turmoil. It’s like a wordless version of the soliloquy. We are clearly seeing what is going on in their heads when they are alone. It’s intimate and voyeuristic. Hamlet takes a shower and makes a large soap question mark on the glass. Guildenstern has a wee. Their acts are private and hidden from each other, but can see the seeds being sown for future problems.

Director Alex Regula says, “In order to maintain this sense of realism the actors and therefore the characters were unaware of what was happening in the other rooms during the entire development process.” This process created some outstanding moments, such as Hamlet and Ophelia gently holding hands in his bedroom, whist in the bedroom below Claudius has stripped Gertrude and has his face buried deep between her legs.

Watching European House is like peering through your neighbour’s window. There is something so fascinating about watching people go about their own life unnoticed. To achieve such natural performances is an astounding feat by the cast. There is no sense of audience or performance. And they all give totally recognisable, but unique interpretations of Shakespeare’s famous characters. Gertrude is especially complex and intriguing and Guildenstern is highly original and pivotal to the theatricality of the piece.

For a work so reliant upon realism, it is directed with an astonishing sense of theatricality. The house draws you into every hidden corner. The design is a cutaway of the whole house, but there is a glass wall installed, not just a fourth wall removed. The glass is important theatrically and dramatically. The sound inside is amplified so we are drawn closer into each room. We hear the turning of pages, the coughing and clinking of plates. When each room is lit, we can see every detail. When not lit, they are in complete black.

After the prologue, I would have been more than happy to watch the rest of the play unfold, but it is unnecessary, as we have already seen everything we need to know. And they didn’t utter a word.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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