Review: European House ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Review: European House

Melbourne Festival #10

European House, conceived and directed by Alex Rigola. Design by Sebastià Brosa, Bibiana Puigdefàbregas, lighting design by Maria Domènech, costumes by M. Rafa Serra, sound design by Ramon Ciércoles. With Chantal Aimée, Àlex Rigola, Joan Carreras, Víctor Pi, Àngela Jové, Nathalie Labiano, Norbert Martínez, Alba Pujol, Alícia Pérez, Joan Raja, Julio Manrique and Ferran Carvajal. Teatre Lliure @ the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 27.

I guess no festival experience is complete without a major letdown. (What occasions the disappointment, and why, is of course the subject of much lively disagreement). And for me, the disappointment of MIAF so far has been European House.

Subtitled Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words (if only!), it’s strikingly designed, lushly lit and beautifully performed… but to what end is debatable. You can teasingly see how it might have been brilliant; there are moments that suggest what it might have been. But the problems with it, however you parse them, left me with a grinding sense of dissatisfaction that only increased as I thought over the show.

The conceit is simple. As the director, Alex Rigola, describes it: “A creative composition without words which, at a soft tempo, puts before the audience a cross-sectional view of a three-storey house owned by a well-to-do European family. A prominent businessman has just died. His widow and son return home after the funeral. By chance, the widow’s name is Gertrude and her son is called Hamlet.”

The focus, as is clear from the opening moments, is on the minutae of everyday existence, haunted by the subtext of Hamlet. We watch in silence as the household servant does the washing up, answers the phone and makes a cup of coffee in a miniature kitchen, which is realised in every detail. Above her, illuminated in the darkness, there appears a man in black: a ghost. Hamlet's father, in fact.

The kitchen/lounge area is on the ground floor of the series of illuminated boxes that make up the rather spectacular set, and pretty soon the doorbell rings, admitting the first of a string of people. In this case, it’s the fellow servant, a young girl. She is given a letter that she receives with excitement, reads it and bursts into tears. The older woman gives her, as a kind of compensation for whatever has upset her, a canary in a cage.

Other people enter: Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, who have clearly been at the funeral, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Ophelia and Laertes, Horatio and Polonius – in fact, the whole damn cast. I spent quite a bit of time in lively speculation as to who was who. Hamlet retreats to his bedroom upstairs, undresses to his underpants, goes next door to the bathroom and has a shower. While he is soaping his hair, he takes some of the soap and writes a question mark on the shower wall. Which is, I guess, his soliloquy.

Although there was a puzzling formal fuzziness – if it was to be a “prologue without words”, then why were people speaking? If it was to be so ultra-naturalistic, why was there not more attention paid to the rhythms and performance conventions when it became something else? – I found myself increasingly absorbed by the action on stage. There was a beautiful moment, for instance, when the funeral party was downstairs, and Gertrude’s bedroom on the upper floor was suddenly lit in soft red, revealing the ghost of Hamlet's father sitting glumly on the bed.

But it all fell to pieces when some text began to scroll across the set. “Why do we die?” it asked us. Well, gosh, I thought, I never thought that before. “Choose to live and make changes,” it advised me portentously, “or simply die in life”. Like these people, it said, in this house. And so on. The text was also notable for some interesting misspellings.

There are a couple of ways of interpreting this astoundingly crass intervention (and some other infelicities in the show, like a long sequence of flashing boxes backed by Radiohead). One is that it is simply naff. Another is that its naffness is deliberate, a comment on the emptiness of European culture, the decadence that reduces the whole of Hamlet to a question mark. I incline to the first theory – there was nothing in the show to convince me otherwise – but the second is actually just as bad: if, as a friend said afterwards, they were doing that on purpose, it is such a cynical strategy that it makes the whole thing horribly depressing.

Playing with voyeurism, making the audience aware of the act of watching, is a commonplace in contemporary theatre; Benedict Andrews’s production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, for example, was a sharp and thoughtful take on the Big Brother concept. And it’s just not enough to make us witness intimate moments as if this on its own is somehow revealing: there has to be an intellectual and aesthetic structure that gives some shape and point to our watching, or it becomes a merely empty experience.

European House demonstrates not only how risky it is to work with banality, but also that it requires a great deal of intelligence. And, perhaps, a certain empathy of vision that is missing here. In this festival, there have been a couple of stunning examples of work that jumps off the banal: Jérôme Bel, for example, or Dood Paard. And even less successful shows, such as Shaun Parker’s This Show Is About People, made up for text that was (almost) equally egregious with some authentically beautiful theatre making.

But there was a superficiality in European House that didn’t survive the splintering blow of that scrolling text. It hit it like a rock on a windscreen, exposing all the faultlines that ran through the show. Its problem is not in design or performance: both of these are high quality. It’s much deeper, in the lack of rigor with which it is conceived and directed.

Done well, mundanity on stage can be compelling, even transcendently illuminating; but I felt some sympathy for the woman last night who, with some asperity, told the man next to her that she didn’t come to the theatre just to watch someone washing up. Her attention wasn’t rewarded, and neither was mine. Program notes in which the director waves vaguely at Joyce and Shakespeare don't help at all. A show like this isn’t going to convince the unconverted that contemporary theatre isn’t totally pretentious. Because that, ultimately, is what it was.

Picture: European House. Photo: Ros Ribas


Bardassa said...

Um, isn't Claudius the one that killed Hamlet's father?, the bald guy in the black suit that made Gertrude sign the papers

Alison Croggon said...

*Blush* Thanks for pointing that out, Bardassa... all fixed up now.

Bardassa said...

no problem amigo. I agree with your crit 100% but was afraid to say so last night for fear of being called conservative or something.

xofro said...

This had so much to play with - I spent ages admiring the set, anticipating the lighting design, guessing who the characters were and watching their interactions with respect to their later movements in the play itself.

I understood it to be a 'prologue' in that the whole thing occurs just before the first 'ghost' scene of Hamlet itself. So H's shower question-mark is not so much a soliloquy but the initial thought processes that coalesce into the soliloquies of the play. Gertrude and Claudius and having considerable difficulties already - did she know he was going to do it? - which shed's much light on their relationship in the play. And H's increasing alienation from his friends is shown as he leaves the security of childhood behind. So far so good. And I was absorbed, interested, fully immersed in the daily life of this wealthy continental family (so different from an English one!).

But yes! - those scrolling dot matrix ticker tape texts!! Ridiculous. And the flashing lights were unnecessary too. What a shame.