A Response: Anti-Hamlet | The New Working Group & Theatre Works

November 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

A response in four parts.

Part one — Jean Genet

Born in 1910 Paris, Jean Genet was said to be a pious and docile child; until, at the age of ten, he was accused of stealing. And being so described, a thief, he was resolved to become a thief. This anecdote, as described by Martin Esslin in his study of theatre of the absurd, comes from Jean-Paul Sartre, an existential philosopher of the time, who wrote on Genet, as well as the nature of freedom and choice.

Esslin tells us that after this incident Genet became “an itinerant delinquent.” He travelled. He spent time in prison. He wrote poetry and plays. He wrote about and engaged in homosexual acts. One of his plays, The Maids, tells the story of two maids (who would have thought?), sisters, who serve the same mistress. They have an intense love and hatred for her, a desire to become and destroy her; they take it in turns dressing up in her clothes and becoming her, one maid becomes the other to complete the game. While mistress is out they perform a ritual that moves from adulation to revolt. Of course, the games always end before the point of no return. On this occasion, however, the two maids come to realise they are to be found out for their part in putting the mistress’ husband in gaol. Their only solution is to commit to the role-play and commit suicide as the mistress; one of them assumes the identity of the mistress, the other becomes her sister, and serves her the poisoned tea they were unable to give to their real mistress earlier. Illusory choice, unfixed identity and queer politics play out in a fabulous, absurd spectacle.

Over a hundred year’s since Genet’s birth, Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debiki took to off-Boradway stages at the Lincoln Centre Festival performing The Maids. The Sydney Theatre Company production was met with mixed reviews, certainly, but no one questioned the talent, force and grandeur of the play. The play’s use of theatre and meta-theatre reflects to the audience a society of contradiction and ever-changing facade. It questions choice itself and asks can we ever be truly free?

Meanwhile, in 2016 Melbourne Australia, Anti-Hamlet has taken to the stage.


Part two — Anti-Hamlet

Taking the philosophical aberration in the title from Deleuze and Guattari, not the aforementioned Sartre, and featuring Freud, rather than those two Frenchmen, Anti-Hamlet is the final piece in a trilogy of Shakespeare re-imaginings by Mark Wilson — who wrote, directed and stars in the show. As Deleuze is reportedly said of doing to other philosophers, Wilson has a reputation for buggering Shakespeare to create a new beast. Of this incarnation, my theatregoing friend said, “This is more depressing than the original,” it was a compliment.


Anti-Hamlet. Copyright New Working Group

It begins with Hamlet (Wilson) telling us that he is depressed. He stands upon the stage on the stage—complete with scaffolding, a lighting rig and luscious red curtains—and soliloquises for us. We meet his childhood friend, Ophelia (Natascha Flowers), who has just returned from Oxford; she is a Rhodes scholar, and is now dedicated and ready to address Denmark’s many humanitarian crises, like offshore detention. Hamlet is still making one-man shows and pursuing The Arts.

Elsewhere, Gertrude (Natasha Herbert) and Claudius (Marco Chiappi) are planning a referendum to make Denmark a republic. Gertrude is ready to welcome the change; eager to renounce the hereditary power she has over the country, even if it short-changes her son. Claudius can’t wait to go from Prime Minister to President. Sigmund Freud (Brian Lipson) is recruited as Hamlet’s therapist, tasked with solving the boy’s mental deficiencies and Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays (Charles Purcell), fresh from America, is brought on-board to help with the ‘Yes’ campaign.

To get closer to the seat of power, Ophelia pledges allegiance to help Claudius to prove her worth and finally, a character who identifies as Horatio (Marcus Mackenzie) serves them all champagne; although his repeated mantra, to the effect of, “I’m Horatio, you’re Horatio, hopefully we’re all Horatio,” suggests that there is more to come from him. Ophelia and Hamlet also have a refrain, “I am a desiring-machine, you are a desiring-machine, we are all desiring-machines,” a poem Hamlet wrote for her, the night they shared together before she left.

Hamlet feels as though the weight of history is crushing him. Freud is convinced that Hamlet wants to fuck his mother — because history represents his long-dead father and the only way to liberate him from this anxiety is through a return to the maternal embrace. Bernays and Ophelia compete for Claudius’ attention and affection. So far, so Hamlet. The mechanics of the tight narrative begin to churn into gear and the wheels start to turn.

Soon, Hamlet decides that the time for art is over and the time for action is now. He adopts a chic protestor bandana around his neck and reads Chomsky. He even gives a book on anarchism to a busker playing on the street, the same Horatio that served them champagne earlier. Meanwhile, Gertrude’s session with Freud reveals her dream of conquering new, untouched lands. As she describes setting forth in this place of gum tress and koalas she touches herself and seems to masturbate with an imaginary phallus.

Bernays tries seducing the clearly closeted Hamlet, but without much luck; his charms work wonders on Claudius though, with all their promise of power. A terrorist cell establishes itself in the country and the leader declares he is the anti-Hamlet; opposite to all that the privileged Prince represents. As the day of the referendum draws closer, the Dane decides, reinvigorated by the power of art, to put on a political one-man show that he believes will change the course of Denmark’s history. It is a three-act play of the birth of a nation. It begins with the bush poets and moves on to the spirit of the land. Ophelia interrupts and asks what he means by this. Declaring the death of the metaphor and need for the Real, Hamlet explains that he is going to utilise black face, from a position of knowing, so that no one has to do it ever again. She tells him it’s still offensive and they quibble about identity and art and how pointing out racism hurts Hamlet’s feelings. Ophelia concedes, apologises, and, upon using the diversion tactic ‘Look a ghost’, steals the offending shoe polish. Hamlet goes on stage.


Copyright New Working Group

The show within a show begins with Hamlet in classic bushman attire until he is ‘possessed’ by the spirit of the land. He begins to embody this spirit. Unfortunately, without the shoe polish the Real cannot break though and the ritual fails. He accuses Ophelia of sabotage and declares that the show must go on; he will proceed with act three. Now stripped to his white jocks, he takes a jerrycan of gasoline and douses himself while the audience, and indeed his theatrical audience, watches. He finds his cigarette lighter, and strikes. Nothing. He continues. Nothing again. He has failed once more. Hamlet is impotent in his ability to affect change.

As it is the evening of the vote, everyone, Claudius in particular, is anxious to see Hamlet’s recovery. Freud states that he must fuck his mother. And, finally, everyone agrees. Hamlet awakens in his mother’s closet, covered in her furs. They luxuriate together on the sofa; she holds him and rubs lotion on his skin; they talk of happiness. Soon, Hamlet snaps and accuses her of inaction. She responds by calling out his closeted homosexuality and explains that Freud thinks they need to have sex. She antagonises him and challenges his masculinity. Finally (finally!), he springs forth, takes off his underwear and leaps upon his mother, rutting furiously. He bucks. She laughs. He pulls away. She cups his limp penis. Even this has proven disastrous and ineffective. However, there is a noise from the red arras. It is not Polonius but his double, Freud, masturbating furiously to the consummation of his Oedipus fantasy. Now Hamlet takes action, he beheads Freud. Act one closes with a naked, flaccid, blood-soaked Hamlet standing on the sofa with a decapitated head screaming, “I killed Sigmund Freud.”

Act two begins—of course it does—with Claudius sucking Bernays’ feet. The polls are closed and a ‘Yes’ vote looks promising. The power dynamics are clear. After a shaken Gertrude arrives, to inform them of Freud’s death, Freud returns, informing them that he can never die, that he is everywhere. Ophelia is well and truly enmeshed in the Government machine by this point and the anti-Hamlet’s actions have become more threatening.

Devastated and destitute from his shortcomings and failures Hamlet drifts to a suburban train station in search of annihilation through brutal sex and suicide. He comes face to face with the man formally known as Horatio. Now no longer hoping that we are all the same he is unhappy with his lot in life and sees killing Hamlet (via explosives in a backpack) as a symbolic victory against his oppressors, he is the anti-Hamlet. He vows to brutalise Hamlet through sexual acts, without knowing this is the very thing that Hamlet desires. As it happens, Bernays arrives and prevents anything untoward from transpiring. He has been using citizens’ mobile phones to track and monitor them. His talent is to know what people want and need before they do; civilian analysis only seems logical.

Back in the dungeons, the anti-Hamlet is tortured, not only by Bernays but also Ophelia. With the referendum declared a victory, Claudius has no need for Gertrude and she is unceremoniously given the brush-off. He plans to hold a barbeque at Kirribilli and everyone is invited. Hamlet finds the anti-Hamlet and they quickly forge a sexual and ideological connection, planning to join forces to eliminate their enemies. At the barbeque Freud tries to take his leave; however, Bernays informs him that he is still necessary and is now controlled by the state; in so far as his theories are so embedded in the way we operate that we cannot exculpate ourselves from them and therefore nor him us. Already the former Queen has attempted some psychoanalysis with the doctor, which resulted in visions of herself as Elizabeth I, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen, whose seed is spread throughout the world. This session ends well for no one. And so, both the father of the mind and the mother of colonisation are castrated by a new world order: elections and public relations. The latter dictating the former via surveillance and the promise of that which the populous didn’t even know it wanted.

Hamlet arrives ready to detonate them all. However, he is seduced by Bernays, whose sexuality seems homosexual but it’s unclear if he’ll just do anything to manipulate people. Ultimately, Hamlet craves recognition from this force. All he desires is to be needed by the machine. After being superfluous to it for so long, he simply wants it to crush him, to need to crush him. Explosives destroy the Sydney Opera House. The anti-Hamlet has succeeded in his task; however, the government will maintain status quo by laying blame on minorities, rather than the very white anti-Hamlet.

Hamlet has been unable to complete his side of the plan; however, he faces one last choice: continue to struggle, or capitulate. Bernays has asked Freud to prepare the Kool-Aid. Freud begins to circulate the electric blue liquid. Claudius drinks ecstatically, Ophelia refuses—her ‘regional solution’ to drowning immigrants demonstrating the calamity of compromise—and it comes to Hamlet to choose. Bernays explains that there is no real choice. Either way Hamlet will drink, it’s just a matter of whether or not he does so willingly or by force. The play therefore comes to completion with the choice to choose or not — both choices lead to the inevitable annulment of power. Gertrude encourages him to drink deeply. And he does. Claudius is delirious, Freud hands out more Kool-Aid, Ophelia laments in her little pool, Bernays mans the barbeque, while Hamlet sits upon the sofa with his mother, smiles in her embrace and talks of happiness. He is at peace with all that’s come before. The weight of history, lifted.


Copyright New Working Group

Part three — The Aftermath

The plot does not replicate the Shakespeare. And the addition of characters, the intermixing of references and the symbology at work all need to be disentangled by the audience — even on the level of enjoyment, the audience still needs a way in. Perhaps this is why the first few reviews of the play have not been flattering. Kate Herbert argues, “Wilson’s script needs a vigorous edit,” surmising, “the frantic stage action and topical references in Anti-Hamlet offer some entertainment but, ultimately, the simplification of Shakespeare’s themes leaves the production looking shallow and predictable.” In The Age, Cameron Woodhead argues similarly, “Wilson’s long and often navel-gazing script needs serious sharpening and a refinement of its ideas. As it stands, the piece doesn’t cohere either as political theatre or as black comic meta-drama.” The star rating—if we care about those—are two and a half and two stars respectively. The Australian’s Chris Boyd follows up saying, “Anti-Hamlet is a loose baggy monster of a play . . . it’s unforgivably long-winded.”

This trio identify the positives, too: “Anti-Hamlet does have the odd moment of absurd inspiration,” Woodhead; “There are some funny, outrageous and entertaining (albeit chaotic) scenes,” Herbert; “it’s charming and funny — pornographically naughty at times,” Boyd. But ultimately the three are underwhelmed by the production.

Anti-Hamlet’s biggest fault perhaps is that it isn’t what the critics wanted; it’s not subversive enough; it’s too wild; too wordy; not enough drama; not enough urgency; it’s ‘destroy-the joint’ but the joint isn’t destroyed; it’s confusing; it’s too obvious; it’s self-indulgent; it’s too broad; and so on. Ironically, these could all be levelled at Deleuze’s writing, but that’s neither here nor there. Or is it?

Deleuze is surprisingly absent from this production — is it because he is less well known than Freud? Or is Freud the necessary character addition given we’re in the world of Hamlet? Either way, the text and production were not the rhizomatic or schizophrenic experience the title might suggest. In fact, the narrative is fairly straightforward, linear, and has very clear rises and falls in dramatic action. The characters behave as expected (by and large) and time moves forwards. So, in many respects, besides the light meta-theatrics, the play adheres to Aristotelian unities. What we do have though, is the embodiment of non-corporeal ideas; such as the invisible forces of neoliberalism, Bernays; the outmoded yet ever-present theories of the mind, constantly diagnosing us, Freud; the elected official that will go to any length to retain power, Claudius; the former power structures mostly left in the 20th century, Gertrude; those who are willing to work within the machine, Ophelia; and, finally, Hamlet, the everyman (every person?) who comes to know that in this world we actually have no choice at all; or, rather, the only choice is to go willingly or face annihilation, like the anti-Hamlet.

This is not a body without organs; these are organs with no body. Of course, it depends whom you talk to and where you quote. In this case, sense has not collapsed to nonsense; we have not transgressed theatrical boundaries into the schizoid. We are not down the rabbit hole. We are still very much on the surface. The embodiment of Deleuze in Anti-Hamlet is peripheral really, save for desiring-machines. I’m sure we could look at the absence of Deleuze as an interrogation of the philosopher—as Zizek reads Hegel’s absence in Deleuze—but I don’t want to get too bogged down. Or do I?

What is relevant and what we can drawn upon is Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that the Oedipal myth has entrenched itself problematically in the fabric of society and must be overthrown in order for us to move forward; however, this is never explicit. The underlying theory of this is quite sound: Oedipus must kill the father and sleep with the mother, and therefore replace him; which establishes a hierarchy, a thing to want to become. Hierarchy is anathema to Deleuze and Guattari. This is because hierarchy proposes that there is an innate desire to become or replace an ideal, the higher thing; in the case of society this ideal is often the straight, white man. But why should we desire to become this thing? Rather, we should seek our own becoming, celebrate our differences and operate as desiring-machines forging new creations — very poetic for philosophy, and very paraphrased, apologies. Anti-Hamlet alludes to this idea but never breaks through. We never arrive at a solution to escape the prison we have made for ourselves.

While Wilson’s text is ultimately unsatisfying in providing a way out of the cage, this is precisely the point. It is not a mistake that he has chosen the erring Prince of Denmark to represent our neo-existential fears. The systems of power that govern our lives are invisible to us, acting in ways even the most educated cannot hope to understand. And while the elite can comfortably turn a blind eye—wise enough to see what they cannot change—the socio-economically disadvantaged can do nothing but rage. Why else would people vote Brexit? Why else would people vote Trump? Because they are afraid, because they do not understand and because people like me use the word ‘they’, to name a few reason.

Despite his absence, we could easily continue our reading of the text through Deleuze. After all, he engages with Hamlet and Oedipus (even comparing the two) as well as time; which is what our text’s protagonist is most encumbered by, history. In Difference and Repetition, the section titled ‘Repetition for Itself’, we encounter three types of repetition: a comedic, a tragic and an empty repetition. The latter is when an imagined act is

“‘Too big for me’ . . . the event and the act poses a secret coherence which excludes that of the self; that they turn back against the self which has become their equal and smash it to pieces. As though the bearer of the new world were carried away and dispersed by the shock and multiplicity to which it gives birth: what the self has become equal to is the unequal of itself.” (D&R, pp.89 [PDF])

There is a clear parallel with Hamlet and the anti-Hamlet, as well as their desires to be destructive. And not just destroy other things but also themselves. There is a sense that in so doing, they achieve something beyond the self. Similarly, these acts that are too big for us, or that reveal an eternal return can be seen in both Hamlet and Anti-Hamlet; perhaps the play within a play, the Oedipal complex, the killing of Polonius (here Freud) or the barbeque-nee-banquet; the depression; the choices. In any respect, it is clear that there are elements too big to be contained in Hamlet and must be repeated in Anti-Hamlet. There are moments and acts that weigh upon new minds, new writers, directors, actors—or in this case, all three!—and tether, perhaps, them all together, these two texts together.

The surface engagement with Deleuze is a little lighter, and Anti-Hamlet does not reject the Oedipal myth. In fact, Hamlet still ends up in his mother’s bosom come curtain down. So if there is no schizo-theatrical escape, what is there? What we are left with is the corporeality of the incorporeal, the disembodiment of an original, and a reorganisation of events, into a rather traditional form.

The fact of the matter is, if the major critic of Anti-Hamlet is that it is more Zizek than Deleuze, then I think we’re getting quite niche. Is Anti-Hamlet supposed to be a succinct theatricalisation of Deleuzian philosophy? No. Is Anti-Hamlet a good name? Yes. Is there enough in there for a Deleuzian reading? You bet. Am I projecting what I want Anti-Hamlet to be? Maybe.

While a Deleuzian Hamlet would probably necessitate something more radical—a Hamlet without Hamlet, perhaps, to take a leaf out of Deleuze’s One Manifesto Lessthere is clearly room for engagement here. And that’s what I’m getting at. What I am suggesting is that this text, which interrogates Australia’s relationship to our colonisers, our history and today’s dominant socio-political ideology, can and should be explored; moreover, it should not be ignored or dismissed.

Esslin says,

“a group of living people constituting a collective unity—the audience—is confronted with the secret world of fantasy and dreams of the outcast. What is more, the audience, by experiencing the impact of what they see, even if that takes the form of horror and disgust is forced to recognise its own psychological predicament, monstrously heightened and magnified though it may be, there in front of the stage. The fact that a large part of the audience may have been drawn into the theatre by rumours that the spectacle will be scandalous or pornographic only increases this effect or shock.” (The Theatre of the Absurd, pp.232)

He is, of course, talking about Genet not Wilson. But what we have here is the other side of the same coin. Wilson may employ academia where Genet employed poetry—both can be as fatal to drama as they can be emancipatory—but they’re both working to create a theatrical event that enables them, and us, to deal with the psychology of society, and the challenges we face as part of or against the over-arching machine. Both employ the absurd; both adopt an existential outlook; both shift identity and images in a world of illusion. I’m not just talking about ‘theatre as an illusion’ but the use of false stages, of synecdoche, of metaphor, the absence of metaphor, symbology and the Real; when seeing these shows we’re entering a disrupted, queer space. Queer in so far as it rejects the status quo. Queer like being homosexual and not wanting gay marriage. Queer like wanting to be called faggot. Queer like you refuse to accept that society allows you to be whomever and whatever you want as long as it’s not disruptive. Queer like not being Horatio, like not hoping you’re Horatio, like not hoping that we’re all Horatio.

While Anti-Hamlet may be too coherent to truly fall into these categories, there is a desire at the heart of the text and in its performance to push the audience to escape their ritualistic enslavement. It falls short of providing answers, and so, rather than giving us catharsis in blood bath, we have numbness and a life of apathy, which any critical person would probably agree sums up the philosophy of the age; we are burdened by choice, by knowledge, by history. We are aware of problems, can identify that which is problematic but are impotent in action. Wilson recognises that the choice is not “to be, or not to be” for this is an antiquated question, particularly among the elites, for we mostly choose to be, the real question is, how do you cope with the being itself?


Part four — Finally

It seems as though the government does not want to fund this kind of art and the critics have no time for it. The first production of Genet’s The Balcony contained “mistakes, weaknesses, and cuts of important passages,” and then went on to have “a more polished, splendidly designed, and magnificently cast” production under the directorship of Peter Brook, who is one of the most influential directors of the 20th century. It is the first production of this play that Esslin says “put the play across the footlights as a whole in a more complete manner” than the latter.

We may have a neo-existential playwright in Mark Wilson, recalibrating Sartre and echoing Genet, through Shakespeare and Deleuze — what a treasure to nurture, if true. But when a production is reduced to three ten-sentence columns, ten days of production, no in-depth critical engagement, and no ongoing support, can we ever hope that our work will be performed a hundred years from now, translated into Mandarin and remounted in Beijing, performed by none other that the immortal Cate Blanchett? If Genet is called a thief and therefore becomes a thief, are our artists, accused of being a waste, a drain, and irrelevant, also destined to be so?

Hamlet begins by saying he is depressed and ends the play inoculated. Is that true of us, too?



Artistic Team
Writer/Director: Mark Wilson
Associate Artist: Olivia Monticciolo
Producer: Mark Pritchard
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Natascha Flowers, Natasha Herbert, Brian Lipson, Marcus McKenzie, Charles Purcell and Mark Wilson
Set and Costume Design: Romanie Harper
Lighting Design: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Sound Design: Tom Backhaus


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