Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Evoking Hamlet in a medieval castle

The site-specific explorations in ELAN Wales' H2O

Pick up any playscript and turn to the first page of the play. What is the first thing that meets your eye? The setting – a street, a drawing room, a park, a veranda … This locates the scene that is to be played out providing it with a sense of the tangible in terms of time and space, creating a background and lending an atmosphere against which the action can develop. But what if the setting was not the background but the foreground? What if, instead of a scene being played out before it, the setting gave rise to the scene? What if the setting became the scene, created the characters? In other words, what if the setting was the narrator, the originator of the action? What stories would it tell, what histories would it recall, what characters would it resurrect? And how? And where? And when?

To engage in site specific work in the truest sense would mean addressing and answering all these questions. It would mean working with a space rather than within it, letting the space echo through the performance and the performance echo the space, asking what a space brings with it over and above a venue for performance – after all we are not dealing with custom built theatres here. A space speaks only if we listen. It has its own history, it is peopled by innumerable ghosts, its shadows hide a myriad forms, it connects us, the present with them, the past, enabling us to cross that bridge and really enter the space to occupy it, to own it, to be owned by it. To belong to it, to have it belong to us. This is indeed a tall order, and to achieve any degree of authenticity in the relationships that are built between performer and space, it is imperative that each performer be allowed to develop his or her own dialogue with the space as a whole as well as with a particular place within the space. This particular place becomes the performers ‘home’ within this community, a site which defines the performer as much as the performer defines it. They become identified with one another so that it seems as natural for an Ophelia to be splashing about happily in an old disused fountain as it would be for someone to draw back their curtains each morning.

The very day we began work on H2O, we were all taken to the site where it would be performed—Parco Corsini, set on a hill mostly within the ramparts of the remains of a medieval castle. All that was left of the castle proper were two ruined towers that rose from the highest points in the park—tall, silent sentinels watching over the town of Fuccechio. Around it the crumbling brick walls fell away in concentric layers towards the bottom of the park. After walking through the site together, Firenza asked us to revisit the site over the next few days individually or in groups and create site-specific sequences—the choice of exactly where and how was left to us. What follows is a description of some of the sequences that emerged and the effect they created the night we first saw them as a group.

One entered the park through the foyer of a new building which housed the local library. At the end of the passageway one could see the bottom of one of the ruined towers—a structural overlap of the ancient and the modern, the past and the present. If one turned to the far right of the main courtyard one was faced with a low wall designed like two consecutive w’s. From behind the arms of one of these w’s two pairs of hands suddenly appeared and beat thrice against the wall. Three young girls—Valeria, Giusy and Eleonora—peeped out at us from behind the wall like naughty little children. They hoisted themselves over the wall and began to ‘play’. A tussle seemed to develop between Eleonora and the other two. She disappeared behind the building and one could hear her beat, perhaps in desperation, against a door. The other two linked arms and followed her, slowly, menacingly. They disappeared and one last agonizing thump rang out. Alex, who had developed her sequence independent of the three girls, appeared from behind the building as if on cue. Who was she? Appearing as she had with that last frantic bang on the door, could she be Eleonora after her unseen encounter with the two girls? Could she have been released by this encounter which we only heard and did not see? She walked to the chapel just beyond the low wall, opened the door and entered the dimly lit chamber where one could just about see the small altar. She began to sing and her voice echoed across the courtyard filling us at once with fear and hope. Was she singing a hymn, was she mourning for the little girl whose grave stood just inside the chapel door, was she, like Cassandra, foretelling a future which no one would believe? Simultaneously the three girls rematerialised and returned behind their wall. Turning on a tap they began to playfully splash water on each other, giggling and squealing with delight. These two sounds of happiness and sorrow, so different in feel rose and fell together, separately, combining, colliding, creating an atmosphere sometimes beautifully harmonic and sometimes downright unsettling. The water stopped, the singing stopped. Alex stepped up to the chapel door and shut it cutting off sight, cutting off sound leaving us only with silence. All that we had seen and heard seemed but a memory now, and an unreliable one at that, for before us stood the closed chapel and the wall, now unmoving barriers to the very world they had briefly opened for us.

The main courtyard was dominated by a large stone terrace which sloped alarmingly towards the right. One of the castle walls rose behind it separating it from another similar terrace at a higher level. Steps on the left of the terraces connected them so that one could look down onto the lower terrace from the higher one. These steps continued till the doorway of the first tower and then curved and disappeared into the gardens that lay beyond. From the second terrace we watched as Stephania emerged into the pool of light at the tower door. She leaned against the wall for a moment turned her back on us and banged repeatedly on the closed wooden door of the tower. Her entire body was pressed against the door as if willing it to allow her in. The door remained unmerciful, unrelenting. Stephania looked back at us for a moment. Was she terrified? pleading? lost? resigned? Below her on the second terrace, arms outstretched against the wall of the steps, Maeve began to sing—clearly, but almost to herself, her eyes half shut and her head turned away from us. Amy appeared on top of the wall on all fours crawling gingerly along the ledge. A flowering shrub that had taken root on the decaying wall obstructed her path. Amy began to brush her face against it, run her mouth across the flowers. What was this we were seeing? Was it madness? Was it desire? Was it the madness that stems from desire?

The remnants of another wall could just be seen at the far end of the second terrace. From that distance and in the sparse light that reached it, it looked like a narrow, jagged precipice that commanded extensive views of the town and country that stretched out beyond it. Camilla stood at the end of this wall looking out over the few lights that pierced the darkness. Cecilie emerged from the shadow of the tower at the top of the wall and made her way silently down to Camilla. She paused for a moment behind her, and then gently but firmly, forced her down to lie on the broken wall effectively truncating her view of the world beyond. Cecilie lingered taking in the horizons she had just wrested from Camilla and then retreated slowly into the shadows she had come from.

In the historical gardens behind the tower we encountered a strange figure—a ghostly presence rather which we sensed more than saw, a phantom which stumbled along the walls of the tower, close to us yet removed, remote. It was Rudolfo clad completely in black and wearing a fencing mask. The play of light and shadow as he blundered around completely disoriented created an eerie effect of more than one apparition merging in and out of one another searching desperately for something amidst the ruins of the castle, the ruins of his life. I don’t know whether Firenza already had Rudolfo in mind for the role, but it was at that moment that the ghost of Old Hamlet appeared before me in all the torment of his death. We moved on to the second tower that was hidden from view by the first if one stood on the terraces in the courtyard. This tower was smaller than the first and could be entered via a stone stairway which led up its side and ended at a barred gate. On the adjacent side was a large square window—a black hole burned into the warmly lit face of the tower. All we could hear as we stood outside was a high-pitched voice singing—an unearthly sound that pierced the pitch darkness inside the tower and arrived before us in tangible form as Leila emerged gradually from the darkness and stood at the window. ‘Emerged’ is the wrong word—it was more as if she assembled herself bit by bit from dark nothingness into living, breathing flesh. Or was she actually living, breathing flesh? Could she not be a spectral projection that the tower had created for us, drawing from memories that littered the interior we could not see? None of us could be sure as Leila looked out at us, smiled briefly, abruptly tightened her lips and was swallowed up by the darkness once more. The tower offered us another image—the stately and grand Michelle and Antonio looking down from their window at us lesser beings. Noble and refined, until they broke into debased cackles, the rotten, filthy laughter of corruption, depravity and conspiracy. They regained their composure as suddenly as their masks had dropped and dissolved again into black cinema screen of the window. Leila had appeared on the balcony of the steps to the tower and beckoned to us. By the time we scrambled to the steps, we were just in time to see her close and bar the gate behind her and vanish into the now silent tower. The secrets of what lay beyond would never be revealed.

A steep cobbled path began through a broken archway that led from this tower and curved down to the orchard, flanked on one side by rows of trees sloping down with the hill and on the other by a couple of desolate square structures with gaping doorways and windows. We made our way down to the orchard and stood looking up at a silhouette that had suddenly appeared on the path we had come down. The figure dropped to the ground and rolled down the path to our feet. It was Seamus. Firenza asked him to repeat the roll down with David. What we saw in the dim light were two bodies grappling with one another as they made the steep descent. Who were they? Was this war, was this play? The cobbled path offered no answers. We looked across at the square structures on the other side of the path. Silently, insidiously, two bodies had materialized in the windows. Seated on the window sills their gracefully crossed legs pressed against the outside wall beneath the window as their outstretched hands were flattened against the wall above it. They looked imprisoned in those positions, a force pulling them down as they reached for something they could never achieve. Their faces we could not see, their identities we could not know. Two empty, hollow, soulless images in empty, hollow, soulless windows. Behind us on our left were two stone baths with rusted iron pipes sticking out of above them bespeaking a time when water actually flowed from them into the hollow structures below. Peering into the dim recesses of the bath we began to make out the features of Ben who had been lying there silently. Suddenly he struggled and came to the surface gasping for air, grabbed onto the iron pipe, and, with what seemed like a superhuman effort, hauled himself over it and out of the bath. In the bath next to his, Lara tried unsuccessfully to pull herself out, scrabbling vainly at the edges as she slipped inexorably backwards into the pit. What was it in these structures (the square houses, the baths) which dragged their occupants down denying them light, air and freedom? What shared histories, shared memories entangled them together making escape so very difficult?

We moved on around the corner and came to a steep flight of concrete steps which had been built into the hillside and led up once again to the historical gardens. This time we saw Eamon rolling down. The narrowness of this flight added to the fact that these were steps with definite edges rather than a broad sloping path, made his roll down very different from that of Seamus. This was a slow, painful descent as opposed to the smooth, though violent roll of David and Seamus. Eamon ended up diagonally across the steps, hands stretched towards the summit, fingers grasping at nothing. Firenza asked Maeve to stand at the top of the steps. The image was remarkable: a dark silhouette of a tower rose behind Maeve and, as she stood in that pool of light at the top of the steps so far above us and simply looked down at the broken figure of Eamon in the shadows, it was immediately obvious to us all that she had pushed him. What was it about those particular steps that made this explanation leap to the eye? That was the mystery. We moved on to an old disused fountain which had once been sparkling white but was now dirty and grimy splattered with bird droppings and littered with dry leaves. We found Leila there, happily splashing through the miserable ankle deep water the fountain had to offer, quite unaware, apparently, that this fountain, like everything else we had encountered, was now dead and so, in all probability, was she.

What are the impulses that create these sequences, what is it that makes the performers look as if they belong there as opposed to looking as if they have come there to perform? What is this relationship that is built up with the space, a relationship that is secret, that the audience is not—or not allowed to be—aware of. An intimacy with the space that is mutual, a comfortable understanding that allows us to giggle with the space, snigger, share things that are extremely personal and never brought out into the open. All the audience experiences is this sense of the intensely personal, the intimacy, the belonging, the naturalness of us in that space and of that space around us. There are secrets that are never revealed to them, questions that are never fully articulated, never fully answered. They never know exactly what happens between Eleonora and the other two girls, they never know what lies inside Alex’s chapel. They never discover whether Stephania manages to enter the tower or if Rudolfo ever finds what he is looking for or if Maeve had actually pushed Eamon down the stairs. They merely catch glimpses of us, register images caught in passing as through an open window, but they can only guess at our impulses, our motivations, our histories, our relationships. They enter a world peopled by us, created by us with the space, a world where we, engaged as we are in our ‘everyday routines’, in our cycle of actions that form part of our personalities, may suddenly pause and become aware of them just as they become aware of us, step out, smile at them as one would smile at a passer-by asking for directions, perhaps help them on their way, and then slip back into our time, our space, our world, leaving them in theirs. Ultimately perhaps they, the spectators, are the intruders, coming suddenly upon this secret world housed and nurtured by this space which they thought they knew.

author:Vikram Iyengar, University of Wales, Aberystwyth

original source: Originally posted to the Theatre in Wales forum
09 October 2001


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