REVIEW: Dogg’s Hamlet / Cahoot’s Macbeth | Sidetrack Theatre, Sydney
Brightsquires is a collaborative new theatre company that does it all. And, all at once. A bunch of bright sparks, all of whom have only recently garnered a Bachelor of Performance at either (the) Australian Academy of Dramatic Art or Actors Colleague of Theatre and Television. Unless I’m mistaken, this is their first production and it’s not a bad effort. They’ve chosen two short plays by Tom Stoppard (Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth) which, for my money, aren’t short enough.
Ah, what a prickly pair! I’ll talk about both as a job lot for, in a sense, they’re inseparable and amorphous.
Stoppard appropriates and subverts the arcane, elaborate language of Shakespeare to score his points about the vagaries of verbal communication and the dissonances and misunderstandings that so easily and commonly occur as a result of misconstruance. In the process, he invents his own language, Dogg, which is an entertaining conceit for about the first five minutes and every now and again thereafter. In between, it’s a tedious, self-indulgent bore, even for someone, such as I, who likes to marinate in words. Stoppard fancies himself as having the wit or skill of Wilde, or Coward, Nash, or someone, but his artifice is, at times, clumsy. It’s one of those, ‘(sigh) yes, we get it, Tom!’ kind of plays.
In Dogg’s, the set is a soft-toy version of alphabet blocks, which take the duration of the play, more or less, for the characters to successfully arrange into titular assemblage. Along the way we’re s’posed to chortle at the vaguely amusing anagrams one can derive from such. While, again, this makes for a cogent metaphor for the scrambled communications that result almost any attempt at it, it’s a rather obvious, sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut kind of approach to making a chalk-one-up intellectual argument, relating to an hypothesis, by Wittgenstein that a bunch of builders could build a wall even if they used different words to describe the same construction materials. Yawn.
Stoppard’s more important concern, (compared to which the Wittgensteinian one is but a trivial pursuit) is with authority and oppression, so Dogg’s Hamlet is a school production, presided over by a callous, fascistic head, wholly unconcerned with teaching his charges to think. The students struggle to grapple with Shakespeare, as we all do. Even Sir John Gielgud admitted, with a laugh, that “of course” he didn’t understand every word he ever declaimed. “You just have to sound like you do!”, he half-mocked. The play’s real strength isn’t, then, in propagating some pet philosophical pedantry by an Austrian pain in the arse, but warning against the rise of other, more insidious control freaks, best exemplified by another Austrian-born, moustachioed mosquito.
Setting aside my disdain for Stoppard, there are some strong, if variable performances here. One of the best is the pseudo-naturalistic one, from Sam Campbell Wilson, as Easy, who crosses the threshold from one play to the other, in another of Stoppard’s idiosyncratic conceits. Another is Joanna Keytel, who ridicules her character of the Inspector (in Cahoot’s) consummately; director, Tristan Carey, has gone down a good road there. A number of other performers spoke so fast they even truncate or trail off, dropping syllables like so much litter. Another spoke so quietly I can barely him (from the second row). I can’t really know whether these are directorial or training indictments. Perhaps both. So, acting-wise, it’s an uneven landscape. Costumes are suitably eccentric and Sean Minahan’s inventive, fantastical sets are arguably the best aspect of both pieces. In terms of realising a bent vision, he might just be, say, the Tim Burton of downtown Marrickville (Sidetrack Theatre).
These plays make for an ambitious and somewhat pretentious early outing for Brightsquires, who risk looking a little like Smartarses. But, to be fair, this risk lies mainly with the playwright and he should bear most of it. The one good thing about Stoppard is he’s a diehard subversive. The one bad thing is he’s an insufferable wanker. Herein, I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. As productions, these plays have plenty of verve and one senses sincere commitment from all and sundry. There’s the good, the not so good, but nothing really ugly. The company has promise, much of it already realised. But, as for Stoppard, I say stop it!
The details: Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth played the Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney on June 12-16.