Mini-review – Hamlet – Tiger Lillies at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Center

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There’s only two days left to see this show, so this review needs to be quick if you’re looking to make up your mind. I’m going to assume you know about Hamlet: to me, it’s the very best play in the English language; as a classic, it’s very open to being “interpreted” as a play as well as being able to form a basis for many other works of art. The Tiger Lillies, well, if you know them I don’t need to say more (and you’re already going), but if you don’t I’ll summarize as: dark clown cabaret music, heavy on the accordion, with liberal helping of Edward Gorey and sex.

Right! So, about that Tiger Lillies’ Hamlet happening at the Southbank Centre for two more nights: it’s 2 1/2 hours long, it has about 10% of the text of Hamlet, and it has five performers doing six characters (Polonius/Laertes is doubled up – well, actually Rosencranz and Guildenstern do make an appearance but they hardly count), so you’re obviously not going to get it all. Instead, you get a journey through the psyche of Hamlet (and a bit of a tour de Gertrude et Ophelia), which, unsurprisingly, the Tiger Lillies find obsessed with sin and death – which, considering the play, isn’t really much of a stretch. There’s far more acrobatics than you get in a normal Hamlet, and very effective puppetry and projections.

Let me go on about the last two for just a bit. Hamlet’s father is a projection, a face bounced onto the cast that contracts until he is only a tiny projection on Hamlet’s body: a powerful expression of his hold over the story as well as his intense sway over Hamlet. This was a nearly shocking use of a frequently lazy medium to convey actual artistry and metaphor: would that all projections were so well used. Ophelia’s drowning scene was also done as a projection, of various waters and splashes behind her while she was suspended from the ceiling; I could have hated it but water (like fire) can just be hard, splashes are impossible (without real water), and the whole thing was just beautiful as well as a summary of Ophelia’s mind (I am particularly thinking of a bit I was sure was blown snow).

The puppets were also very good: Polonius is such a figure of ridicule that he _is_ just perfectly expressed as a giant puppet; and the scene with the players, done as the actual cast with strings holding them to the ceiling, captured nicely the feeling of the performance being controlled by Hamlet as well as the bigger metaphor of the characters in they play all being manipulated by forces beyond their control.

Did the Tiger Lillies intend their design to hit deeper levels so effectively, or was this merely a side effect of someone else’s artistic choices? Oddly, their songs did not really add too much to the show other than atmosphere, a fault that was not entirely caused by the murky sound design (Hamlet’s mike totally gave out at one point). Still, I’m not one to complain; this was a very engaged adaptation of this play and I can highly recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012.)

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