Monday, February 11, 2008

Rogue, road warrior, peasant slave

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 02.11.2008

Rep’s latest production transposes “Hamlet” to a post-apocalyptic, “Mad Max” world of howling desolation and horrific weaponry

LAURENCE OLIVIER, by consensus the greatest Shakespearean actor of the last century, described his 1941 film version of “Hamlet” as “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.”

By that standard, the Prince of Denmark played by Niccolo Manahan in Repertory Philippines’ current production of “Hamlet,” directed by Ana Abad Santos-Bitong, must seem like a radical departure. Gone for the most part are the ambiguities, the tortured indecisions of the character, even in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy.

What Manahan brings to the role is a resolute, knowing reasonableness that suggests his Hamlet is squarely sane, and his breakdown an undoubtedly calculated act to rouse the villain of his father’s murder out of his rat hole.

To the question of whether this Dane is really mad or not, Manahan’s airy, romantic Hamlet--a sweet chap jolted out of his bland comforts by violent family upheavals--makes the case that, while anguished and agitated, he remains in full control of his faculties.

Technically, the agile Manahan has a lock on the role. He cuts a luminous figure onstage with his plummy voice and handsome profile, and his speeches are a model of clarity, precision and thoughtfulness--adjectives you could also use to describe Bitong’s reimagining of the play.

This “Hamlet” is spare and streamlined (Fortinbras is nowhere, as are the expected Freudian subtexts, the overused Oedipal angle barely hinted at), and the production as a whole displays an assured briskness, lightness and lucidity.

What it lacks in its title character, however, is something fundamental: any sort of manic, tragic streak that would render his Hamlet a truly melancholy Dane.

Manahan’s elevated turn, while poetic and crystal-clear, displays scant undercurrents of simmering, morbid despair. That sense of steadiness, which feels oddly bourgeois rather than princely, jams his Hamlet into a fix. Absent any tragic sparks, this most heartbreaking of characters refuses to burn.

Visual wallop
To return to “bland comforts:” It may seem like an odd phrase to describe a milieu that’s been transposed from the medieval baronial shadows of Elsinore Castle to a post-apocalyptic world of howling desolation and horrific weaponry.

There is no denying the visual wallop of Denis Lagdameo’s set design (a bare ramp framed by desert sand and searing horizon); Faust Peneyra’s meticulously imagined costumes; Martin Esteva’s stark lighting; and Jethro Joaquin’s ethereal score.

A spectral, transporting vision, the scenery lends powerful atmospheric shape to this elemental tale of chaos, savagery and death.

Gracious and courtly
But one has to ask: If this “Hamlet” and its denizens have located themselves in a post-civilized world of tribal thuggery and marauding lawlessness, why is everybody--from King Claudius (a fierce if thin-voiced Joel Trinidad) and his Gertrude (Frances Makil-Ignacio, warm and earthy) down to the garrulous Gravedigger--still behaving at his or her gracious and courtly best?

The dystopian setting, almost another character in this production for its sheer tactile and sensual punch, somehow primes us for a rougher, rawer, less ritual-bound and more physical take on “Hamlet” than the conventionally mannered, tasteful vibe that its cast delivers--despite their punkish makeup, Mohawk hairdos, “Mad Max” regalia and the occasional mock tussle on the sand.

For the most part, none of them (except perhaps Jamie Wilson as a gruff, barreling Laertes) seems internally informed by their peculiarly coarse environment.

That organic disconnect between tone and schema--between, on the one hand, Manahan’s solidly sensible Hamlet surrounded by people of a similarly cultivated vein, and, on the other, an atmosphere of blanket harshness with its shattered social codes and hierarchies that by right should breed only the most brutish, unfettered creatures--is a puzzle that the production fails to address. The scenery impresses, but on its own.

Because her character stands as a solitary flower in the midst of this wasteland, Cris Villonco’s Ophelia is the only figure whose delicacy seems unforced. Her meltdown in the second act is moving--a moment that confirms the presence of a young actress worth following on the local boards.

Innovation and tinkering
This “Hamlet,” too, dare we hope, marks another peg in the gradual way Rep is revitalizing its brand of theater.

In its last few seasons, the 40-year-old company has opened itself to innovation and tinkering, from adaptations (“Gaybirds” retooled as 1970s Malate, for instance) to new creative blood coming in (Gino Gonzales doing the arrestingly abstract set for “Song & Dance” last year).

“Hamlet” is perhaps the pluckiest entry yet in Rep’s emerging new era, with Bitong as a first-time director, many of her actors and creative team coming from outside Rep, and the production itself a detour from the company’s standard fare of middle-of-the-road comedies and musicals. (It presented the Paul Rudnick farce “I Hate Hamlet” in 1992, but never “Hamlet.”)

Warts and all, it’s a watchable, honorable piece of work that adds heat to Rep’s welcome thaw.

[Photos: Jojit Lorenzo]


patrick said...

i'm planning to watch this but i feel that i won't enjoy..

i like hamlet, but i'm just not sure if the futuristic setting of this one would entertain me.

i'm considering the personalities.. the characters were created based on that era, so making it futuristic makes it completely different, somewhat ironic.

Oggs Cruz said...

I saw Rep's Hamlet and I've been told that the dystopian vision was a last minute decision... the director wanted to place the Shakespearean play to the Cordilleras, amongst the NPA rebels, which would have been interesting, even though it would take a lot of research to get the milieu right. The play I saw was beautiful for beauty's sake. It didn't add anything to the play, which is what I'm really looking for whenever Shakespeare's plays are restaged. His plays are so malleable to the point that it can mean anything, and which is probably why his plays have given birth to so many films (the best of which are the ones that made the plays their own: Rashomon, Ran, Insiang, Hamlet Goes Business; while the forgettable ones are those that merely transported the material to modernity without adding anything else: Romeo+Juliet and O). Sadly, this Repertory production belongs to the latter. It's technically polished, but it doesn't go beyond Cliff Notes. I remember a TA production of Shakespeare that reimagined the play in Muslim Mindanao, with a stage design by Salvador Bernal that is as simple as it is beautiful. That one grew its own teeth, this one satisfies itself with dentures).

arpee lazaro said...

saw the play just now. repertory's restaging of hamlet is a good refresher course for those who might have forgotten about shakespeare and his work. but i have to be honest, shakespeare was never my cup of tea. you see, there's language barrier. i was actually looking for shakespeare being retold in the language that i know. understandably, this is repertory philippines' first staging of hamlet and they probably wanted to hit all the right notes on the first try. nic manahan must have core two duo with 2Gb memory. his lines were kilometric and were in a language that probably only yoda would have enjoyed. i had to strain to understand the lines. the guy beside me just gave up and slept through the first act. the language was both archaic and culturally out of sync. shakespeare really needs some form of explanation before he is understood. the story of hamlet is universal, but the context and allusions are anything but. written back in the 17th century europe, the references are long dead and if not for the actors matching the lines with its corresponding gestures, i swear i wouldn't have understood a thing. add a technically inferior staff; microphones would go dead every now and then, and one of their lights blew up in the first few minutes. good thing the actors were professionals and knew how to handle distractions. i wish the next restaging of shakespeare will be more comprehensible.

gibbs cadiz said...

PATRICK, i hope you did get to watch it, and that you gave it a chance. shakespeare is almost always contemporized these days. and when it works, it only reaffirms the fact that his words and his genius are timeless, universal. :)

OGGS, thanks for your comment, especially this line: "That one grew its own teeth, this one satisfies itself with dentures)." man, you should be a writer (if you aren't one already)! :)

ARPEE, hi, well, shakespeare can change eras, costumes, staging, but the one thing that really can't be touched (except in translation, of course, which is another thing altogether) is his language. the power and beauty of these pieces is in their poetry, and i'd shudder to think of anyone trying to rephrase them in modern ways. so, yeah, playgoers--and not just the actors, etc.--have to do their part to understand the content and context of what he's saying. :)

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