Venue: De Grey Rooms, York Theatre Royal
Teatr Strefa Otwarta make excellent use of what they’ve got. The Polish language features a number of times during their interpretation of Hamlet, making the prince and his lover increasingly difficult to understand. And yet, they clearly enjoy breaking boundaries even more than they enjoy putting them up; inviting their viewers in for what essentially acts as a formal chat… made increasingly interesting by a series of explosive interactions between the two. Overall, this means you learn a little Polish while getting up close and personal with an unpredictable pair.
When I went along to view the show, the cast (Anna Rakowska and Piotr Misztela) had taken charge of the De Grey Rooms, part of the York Theatre Royal. They set up the ‘stage’ with viewers sitting on each side of the ballroom, facing each other as well as the two actors, who occupied the middle of the room or occasionally the empty seats themselves. This positioning made for a good way to take in the reactions of the rest of the audience, some of whom seemed especially bewildered, including the theatre attendant sitting in on the play. Having been treated to multiple false endings (in which Hamlet and Ophelia both claim the performance is finished, and that the audience should leave), she mouthed, ‘is it over?’ to the theatre’s music technician, when the cast finally left the room together: a moment that typifies the relentless back and forth dynamic of the play. Teatre Ostawa put themselves through a plethora of emotions in this performance, which never seems likely to end: one minute there’s laughter as the two playfully recall certain aspects of their relationship, the next, Ophelia is helplessly draping herself onto a nonchalant Hamlet, pining after his attention.
The power balance is constantly shifting, and this makes for gripping, at times difficult viewing as the two hurl themselves at each other, hoping to physically weaken the other by method of attrition. There were several well improvised instances in the version I watched, including an incensed Ophelia shouting ‘That’s my man’ in the face of a member of the audience as she ate a cheap biscuit that Hamlet had offered her. This is just one of the ways that the audience can influence the behaviour of the two characters, a relationship that opens up with a question ‘Tacht’ (Yes) or ‘Nien’ as the audience must decide whether Hamlet wants to be with Ophelia or not. Touches like these make for a truly engaging performance which puts the actors in a position of slight vulnerability; in one instance even appearing to pause as they thought of what to do next. However it works both ways: the audience putting themselves in the hands of the actors. This was so, quite literally in one case, as Ophelia grabbed that same girl who was so purposefully taking the biscuit earlier in the performance, and placed her, compromisingly, in the hands of the Prince.
That doesn’t mean that everyone has to play a part, you can quite easily sit back and marvel at what you’re watching, or if you like, allow yourself to be dispossessed of any number of objects, in yesterday’s case, a ring, a scarf, a cigarette… even a bike helmet. These actors respond to such mundane things – using them to feed into their unstable cocktail of emotions – in a masterful way, adding to the playful nature of their style. But so too do they show aspects of both of Shakespeare’s characters in every movement and verbal exchange, making for an unravelling effect as the play goes on. This effect extends to the plot, which seemed almost non-existent in places, clearly not the focus. This lack does afford a flexibility for what can be produced within the 55 minutes that makes up H(2)O, but it equally appears insubstantial and at times repetitive. Nonetheless, the charisma that these two actors radiate won’t fail to impress, bringing Hamlet and Ophelia into sharp focus.