Any review which begins "I yield to no man in my admiration for Robert Lepage..." is bound to continue with the word "but". So it is here.
The Québecois sorceror's more-or-less solo version of Hamlet is the most visually astounding piece of theatre you will ever see, at least until the next such Lepage project. The strategy of his Needles And Opium, seen at the National Theatre in 1992, is maintained and elaborated. Lepage plays disorientating games with the audience's perceptions of space and dimension by staging scenes from a rear or even overhead perspective and by the use of video cameras to supply alternative points of view, flanking his figure in a centre-stage window with his real-time video image shot from either side, or over-projecting it with a rear view; the final fencing duel is seen almost entirely via a miniature camera mounted on the poisoned foil.
Carl Fillion's set spins, flies, warps and endlessly reconfigures itself in a mesmeric geometrical ballet; Robert Caux's sonorous score, performed by the composer and his rack of silicon goodies at one side of the stage, includes electronic treatments of Lepage's amplified voice through pitch-shifters and harmonisers when he speaks the lines of other characters. Lepage appears to be in two places at once, thanks to judiciously cheeky use of a doppelgänger; we fail quite to see through the switches even at the curtain call. In grace and technique, the whole affair puts any performance of stage magic to shame.
The disappointment is that all these presentational wonders form the exoskeleton of a piece which has surprisingly little to say about Hamlet, either the character or the play. Lepage's programme notes on Elsinore are heavy with terms such as "based on themes...", "variations", "sketch" and even "electro-encephalogram", but he has constructed his show from the outside in, and its exterior shimmers and dazzles so much that we can see scarcely anything of the meditations which may be behind it. Where Needles And Opium used a text of his own composition which complemented the imagistic richness to create a simple, striking eloquence, the 95 uninterrupted minutes of another's words in Elsinore (delivered in an artificial stage-English accent) fail to convey much of note either to the heart or the head.
It is as if Lepage, despite having mounted the edited text in such a magnificent visual armature, is paradoxically timid of offering an interpretative performance himself; in this respect it is most reminiscent of his productions of Schönberg's operas Erwartung and Bluebeard's Castle in the 1994 Edinburgh Festival, or the films of Peter Greenaway at their most formalistic. Beyond a pervasive concern with mutability, relativism and uncertainty in all its forms, Elsinore is virtually mute. And so Hamlet provides us, after all this time, with yet another paradox: a production which is at once unenlightening and unmissable.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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