Theatre in Wales

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

The Italian Job

Jeni Williams writes on ELAN Wales's Hamlet in Fucecchio

I've just returned from seeing ELAN's work in Italy. Very striking not only to see the work but to look at the complex and developed relationship between the company and the city of Fucecchio. ELAN has presented a programme of work there annually for the past 6 years. Walking around the town banners over the streets proclaim 'ELAN Wales: H2O: Parco Corsini, July 21-22' and there are prominent posters. The city council has supported this individual project to the tune of 17,000, a sum that has allowed ELAN to conduct training and development sessions resulting in a performance with around 40 individuals over a fortnight. The money allowed for the press budget that paid for me to go. And then there was lots of lavish coverage in the regional and local papers. I know how incredibly different the funding systems are in Italy with their legacy of patronage but since when has any individual council in Wales even interested itself in supporting local companies? - never mind one located in another country. I'd like to see Swansea give even half that amount to a newish company like Steel Wasp for example. Or how about some tangible recognition for an international company like Volcano .. . How about Bangor supporting and developing local performance culture? When will the South Wales Echo devote half (or even a quarter) of a page to reviewing an experimental work without fearing theat its readers will be bored by a lack of gossip? Still Wales does have the Arts Council and we expect astonishing things under the new regime.

As to the performance (which is, of course, why I went). 'H2O' was the second in a series of ELAN's three productions that use Hamlet as the starting point for dramatic meditations on place, memory and the body. It's a massive project bringing together performers, dancers, musicians and technicians from all over Europe, to three very different sites: Northern Europe (Denmark: Masnedo Fort, Vordinborg), Southern Europe (Italy: Parco Corsini, Fucecchio) and the Celtic fringe (Wales: Margam Park).

Hamlet is one of the iconic plays of the twentieth century. The way it has been interpreted since Coleridge saw himself as Hamlet - and, even more so since, Freud looked at it - has encapsulated the problems of the modern age, caught between the problem of the individual (Hamlet himself) and the wider responsibilities to authorities which may or may not be trustworthy, or which are certainly corrupt and self-serving. And then there's the question of the meaning of sanity in a world which is rotten to its core, where relief seems to lie in the violence of meaningless wars. Yet despite this potent mix, performances of Hamlet seem so often to be reduced to posturing. It may well be an iconic play, one of those that everyone knows, but it is because we know it so well it's hard to respond with freshness. We are no longer surprised: we know what happens, who the characters are and what they do, even what they say. This was the starting point of ELAN's project: to challenge what Firenza Guidi describes as the reduction of the play to kareoke. The result is characteristically powerful. The problems outside Hamlet's Denmark and the problems within its rotten heart are entwined in the play itself and these have been explored in the two responses so far: where ELAN's first, Danish response to Hamlet focused on its internal angst-ridden politics, the second one played with the Renaissance context of the play.

Over the years ELAN has developed a performative language, like the rituals she's fascinated by, and often uses the same gestures and movements over several performances. But this doesn't mean that the shows are the same. Far from it - the most striking thing is how very different they are. Gestures change meaning in different spaces, just as human behaviour is changed by physical and cultural context. The Danish performance was held in a cold, damp twentieth-century underground fort, one full of twisting narrow corridors, shadows, echoes, doppelgangers and angst: reflecting psychological inwardness and control. The Italian spectacle was held outdoors in the fourteenth-century fortress of a Renaissance prince with an eleventh century tower, it featured a salacious, red-clad cardinal, a costumed Queen Elizabeth and a choir singing (amongst other things) Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Foregrounding the five centuries of history evident in the architecture of the site, it displayed the seductive operation of power. It was grand, open, operatic, far less interested in the individual.

The thing that held this great rambling performance together - a fourteenth-century walled courtyard; a terrace, an eleventh-century tower, a walled garden walk, an outdoors cinema - was its use of coloured light against the darkening surroundings. The red of the cardinal's coat was everywhere. It spilled out of windows into the courtyard, illumined the tower from within, coloured the steps from the Tower, became flame on the cinema screen. It lit up the lewd games played out by the cardinal around the lustful marriage of Gertrude and Claudius. And three conflicting voices reverberated behind these games and this red light. These were the voices of Old Hamlet, of Gertrude and of Ophelia: forgotten histories for the play marks the triumph of the new world order. Each proclaimed its right to the ruth. They were not represented by characters but were voices overheard as we stood within the walled and exclusive space of the courtyard, the antechamber of the performance, and watched the stately circulation of those icons of historical power - the church and the monarch, the cardinal and the Queen - as they walked around a candle-lit well at its centre. Old Hamlet's voice claimed that without him there would be no story and that therefore he spoke the truth; the voice of Gertrude claimed that she had not been given any words for herself but that the truth lay in her body, finally the voice of Ophelia claimed, like the others to tell the truth. 'I was pure snow but I got too close to the sun and melted. You will find me in water.' Water is, of course, the feminine element, that into which the silenced victim throws herself in the original text.

This was a production dominated by an exploration of power and desire. Visually, as to be expected in Guidi's work - it was stunning. At the foot of the red-lit phallic tower was an enormous futon, as big as a room, on a terrace to the side was a baby grand on which Giusi Bisantino played her own powerful compositions as a figure of the muse. The audience was separate from the spectacle of power for this first section and then led into a narrow walled garden where both Ophelia and Hamlet plunged themselves into stone baths of water lit with submerged lights. The play within a play was represented by a film projected on the screen in the outdoor cinema at the end of that garden, a backlit screen which allowed the audience to see what was happening behind its surface.

Surfaces and depths; passion and water - the result of seeing an ELAN production is almost always a series of separate shining images left in the mind. Here dancing and darkness, colour and light. The unusual spectacle of large numbers of performers and the changing context of space as the audience moves through it and thus changes it. Chaos stilled into momentary pattern in frozen tableaux as a reflection of theatre itself and its ability to make sense of life.

Several of the performers in Italy were Welsh, drawn from last year's Faust, while I saw the performance with others who were travelling round Europe and had made the effort to get to Italy just to see it from places as far flung as Rumania. This speaks the enormous impact that ELAN's work is having on young performers in Wales. Her ideas and technique have evolved here and the name of the company advertises its place of origin wherever it appears. Although the play was dismembered and reconstructed into an entirely different pattern the performance recognisably engaged with the material of Hamlet itself. It will be interesting to see what ELAN do with the National Youth Theatre in Margam Park this September

author:Jeni Williams

original source: Original article for the Theatre in Wales web site
02 August 2001


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