Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London – until 22 June 2017
A lesson: always read press releases in full. Why? Because you might turn up to a show and discover it’s performed in Russian (when you don’t speak Russian). At least in this instance knowing the source material for Hamlet Fool, a one-woman street performance style retelling Shakespeare’s classic, provides a base knowledge.
Anastasia Zinovieva is a motley clown who wants to reenact Hamlet, but it’s a big story to take on herself. She enlists seven people from the audience to fill the major roles and instructs them as they go – similar to Hamlet’s treatment of the players. A mix of clowning, storytelling and metatheatre, this interactive piece is deliberately crude and messy. It draws on traditional European clowning techniques, human tragedy and the grotesque.
With this style choice Shakespeare’s story is, on the surface, gently mocked. Underneath, adaptor/director Ovlyakuli Khodjakuli pulls back the trappings of language and polished performance conventions to expose the raw, disgusting humanity behind the story. Numerous props are used heavily to create visceral reactions – fake blood, balloons, strawberry laces as worms, a doughy cake and makeshift costumes end up everywhere. The mess is not just all over Zinovieva, but some of the audience, too. It’s revolting, but so is what actually happens in the Hamlet story.
The willingness of the audience volunteers is most impressive, but disturbingly complicit. Zinovieva has them perform all sorts of ridiculous actions and whilst most display a level of discomfort, no one refuses. The man playing Claudius gets fake blood on him and everyone else ends up with the sticky cake stuff on their hands. Even with wet wipes, it’s a lot ask of the audience in the already uncomfortable theatre lacking aircon. They are onstage for about an hour – a ludicrously long time – and some endure touching that crosses the line of acceptability. But it’s never questioned or rejected, even when Ophelia is groped. Is this a culturally ingrained fear of questioning authority? Is this an expectation that a woman’s body is for anyone’s taking? Or something else? In any case, it’s distasteful at best and concerning at worst.
Whilst there are a lot of interesting nuggets to take from this elemental interpretation of Hamlet in a language I don’t speak, it is also highly disturbing in the lack of boundary between audience and actor. Perhaps this is prudish, but these elements of the work feel exploitative rather than daring.