MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare presents two short plays based on the idea that Shakespeare can be on the one hand useful and malleable and on the other garish and opaque. The two very different works, Hamlet by the Pool and Engraft, equally enliven and update the bard while complicating our understanding of his modern-day relevance.
Written and directed by Isobel Milne, Hamlet By The Pool is a punchy, pacey and triumphant exploration of Shakespeare’s best-known play. A Noises Off, play-within-a-play style farce, Hamlet by the Pool explores a ragtag group of actors and their long-suffering director attempting to mount a production of Hamlet with nothing but a one page script and their foggy memories of the plot. Set in an Aussie backyard, the stage is furnished with cartoonish renderings of a hills hoist, laundry basket and the ubiquitous backyard fence, an admirable representation of the larger-than-life farce by the design team. Milne’s inspiration for the play is whether theatre can truly hold “the mirror up to nature”, as Hamlet himself professes. While the play doesn’t land on an answer, the search is brilliantly enjoyable to watch. A commendably complex examination of the relevance of Shakespearean performance today, the play’s cerebral moments are balanced perfectly with the moments of hilarity that had the packed house laughing for the plays 50 minute run time. The cast, an impressive group of university actors, flip between modern Aussie conversation and pathos infused iambic pentameter. Abbey Vas and Emmet Mulcahy’s portrayal of Sarah and Alex, actors whose Hamlet and Ophelia dynamic crosses over from rehearsal to real life, captivate the audience with their performance. Eamon Dunphy inhabits the disbelieving director with aplomb, balanced by Lotte Becket’s more laid back Assistant Director. Anna Richie and Hannah Lim round out a phenomenal ensemble, with comic levity and cunning power respectively.
As the players’ rehearsal progresses, their approach to Hamlet becomes more playful, and a particularly imaginative section sees them conceive of a version of the play set at public pool. But as they begin to take more ownership of the play, the play in turn takes ownership of them. Cardboard words take on a strange power, heavy words trip of the tongues of young lovers, and the plays end is truly fitting of Shakespearean tragedy. Still, it is the play’s thoughtful comments on theatre that stole my heart. I humbly offer that the bard would be proud.
The evening’s second play is Engraft. Written and directed by Sarah Bostock and Sophie Chauhan, the work shifts towards a subtler examination of Shakespeare. A steel box frame meets the audience as they re-enter from intermission, housing actor Lydia Bell, on whose character the play centres. The play’s experimental and non-naturalistic exploration of mother/daughter and lover relationships relies on themes of love and loss, rather than direct reference to Shakespeare. The play only sporadically incorporates Shakespearean or Shakespeare-esque dialogue, and perhaps could have benefitted from more overt textual references to guide the play back to the evening’s subject matter. Where the play truly shines is in the moments of connection between the actors. Bella Ruskin’s mother character is tense and powerful, Lexie Gregory’s fed-up girlfriend is moving and mesmerising and Pamela Freire’s energetic child is a masterclass in character physicality. It is Lydia Bell, though, who holds this performance together, leading the audience through the journey from child to mother with depth and vulnerability. This play is an ambitious and emotional exploration of human interaction and connection.
A thought-provoking and enjoyable night of theatre, Plastic Shakespeare is a fascinating look at the timelessness and timeliness of Shakespeare.
MUSC’s production of Plastic Shakespeare ran from the 9-12th of May at the Guild Theatre.