On Monday I saw The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. I have to admit that I was feeling a bit tired and so it’s possible, nay likely, that I didn’t give it a fair viewing, but I came out of it feeling deeply underwhelmed. Fortunately, I had C handy to remind me that there’s a big difference between the kind of audience-response review that I offered of “meh” and a real engagement with the material presented.
My reaction was based on a simple fact: I hadn’t felt emotionally connected to any of the action at any point in time. It begins with a 15-minute lecture on the fragmentation of language and identity in Hamlet; combined with it’s very obvious meta-textuality it is clearly aspiring to a kind of post-modern intellectual weight. Sweeping though it is, the generalization I’d make is that post-modern art is often about intellectual rather than emotional engagement; hence my problem with it. However, the simple label of “post-modern” doesn’t automatically provide an analysis schema for me: it is far too nebulous. And so I’ve been turning over the play in my mind looking for a unifying concept that I can use to interrogate the play for meaning.
Last night, I realised where I’d seen the play’s exact structure before: a brief introduction calling out scenes of interest, interspersed with nominal action which frames exerpts from another main work. It’s a clip show. That venerable institution of US sitcoms where the cast sit around and talk about some or other key memory that threads its way through the season’s otherwise episodic material.
Essentially, this highlights package covers all of the essential plot points but nothing else. Hamlet itself takes something like 3 to 4 hours to perform in full, but by decontextualizing the scenes, presenting the plot-essential scenes effectively in isolation, this production gets the plot done in around 1 hour.
When you consider the discussion of reinterpretation, fragmentation of text and character, and then essentially jumble up the most famous parts of the play in a kind of highlights package, and layer a heavy dose of reference to Beckett’s theatre of the absurd, it starts to look less like an unemotional pastiche, and more like a carefully constructed argument about art in a more general way, using Hamlet as a template.
The argument is the essential post-modern argument that art is inherently an interpretive act. In this example, the centrepiece of that argument is that when breaking for the intermission the audience physically comes down onto stage to vote for which of three actors they wish to play Hamlet in the remainder of the production. The argument is that we always get to choose our Hamlets through the filter of our perceptions: here that is rendered externally. More generally, we are selective in what parts of the art we even absorb at all – the transformation of the action into isolated episodes that yet convey the plot is exactly how you remember productions: key moments, key performances.
Whether you find this interesting is a different matter. For myself, I became progressively less and less engaged as the production wore on, and in applying these analysis stances to the play I can’t shake the sense that all of this content is accessible simply from the opening lecture and even a shaky grasp of the modernist and post-modernist movement (especially some conception of Beckett). Actually seeing this concept played out didn’t really add much for me.
Sadly, I can’t help but compare this play to Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, which tackles a lot of the same concepts, but does so in a way which I found far more engaging as a piece of entertainment.
My verdict is that I think this play would make a fine piece of work to study in terms of a “Post-modernism 101” type course, but didn’t work for me as a piece of entertainment.