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When DNA Theatre mounted a production of Hamlet in Toronto last winter, a spectacular collision was anticipated between the experimental company’s buzzsaw theatrical style and the monolithic Shakespearian text.
DNA practices what might be called cubist theater, taking sealed-up narratives and slicing and dicing them into indigestible flows of experiential data that undermine unified and absolute interpretation. DNA productions are typically chaotic and challenging, subordinating narrative focus and individual feats of acting to multilayered sequences of meticulously orchestrated tableaux.
Hamlet (with a backwards “e”) was similarly structured. Hillar Liitoja, who writes and directs all of DNA’s work, conjured up innumerable distancing fragmentation devices during the non-stop 7-½ hour production, in which audience members were allowed to wander wherever they chose throughout the multitiered wraparound set.
Hamlet began outside the theater building. Audience members were led to a backstage door, then questioned by two guards before being allowed to enter. Inside, 23 performers had already begun enacting highly stylized, seemingly unconnected fragments of text.
The fragments were repeated continuously for about an hour, then suddenly converged into the second scene of the text.
From the point on, Hamlet unfolded more or less according to the original order of Shakespearian scenes, through most were greatly lengthened. Spliced among the Shakespearian scenes were numerous added ones, ranging from the absurd - a deadpan musical romp called The Teacup Dance performed by the itinerant players - to the expressionistic - various performers assembled into a sort of Greek tragedy chorus machine that echoed Shakespearian characters. Some added scenes played off the text, others served to disrupt it, still others bore no apparent connection.
With as many as seven scenes going on simultaneously, and with the Shakespearian ones greatly underplayed as if to resist attention, audience members had to frame their own courses of events as they chose which scenes to follow. Also, the performance was self-reflective insofar as some performers interacted with audience members and the stage crew.
Such theatrical strategies seemed to indicate a Brechtian rebellion against canonical narrative in which meaning is foreclosed and passively consumed, but a reversal occurred. The Shakespearian text (perhaps because it’s so deeply embedded in the Western literary unconscious) retained its weight and was strangely reified. As audience members crept up close to watch Hamlet quietly berate Ophelia in a remote corner of the set, for example, or Claudius whisper plots to Polonius over dinner, the text as a whole was elliptically brought to life. Upturned through it was, the production ultimately succumbed to Shakespeare and ratified orthodox theater.
If the reversal was deliberate, then Liitoja was toying with the audience by showing how far he could bend in the fourth theatrical wall without breaking it. That the reversal was probably accidental and beyond the director’s control is indicated by what seemed to be a final act of frustration against an inability to break free of the text: after Hamlet’s death in the final scene, Liitoja killed off Horatio, Osric and almost everyone else that Shakespeare left alive.
Ultimately, it is impossible to say what Liitoja meant to do with the production because it was vague in some places and excessively cryptic in others. Through Hamlet showed some of DNA’s anarchic exuberance, in the end, the collision that was anticipated turned out to be an awkward embrace.