Review: MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare

<p>For years, the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company (MUSC) has churned out quasi-experimental theatre as if by obligation to form.</p>


This is our second review of Plastic Shakespeare. You can also read Lucy Turton’s review.

For years, the Melbourne University Shakespeare Company (MUSC) has churned out quasi-experimental theatre as if by obligation to form. Last year it was Lear performed backwards and then a complacently gender-swapped Richard III. Both felt like student theatre, gently toying with theatrical conventions, vacillating between overstated purpose and no purpose at all. Although uneven, with Plastic Shakespeare, MUSC has dropped its obsession with inane experimentation and found a more intelligent, meaningful approach to the bard of burden.

Divided into two short plays with an interval between them, Plastic Shakespeare takes two radically different styles and interpretations of Hamlet and the sonnets, respectively. The tonal shift between acts, an ostensibly unavoidable compromise, is subsequently striking and unsettling. It is for this reason that the sudden gear-switch feels ill-considered and clumsily ignored. We, the audience, are encouraged to accept this disruption as a consequence of the anthological form. However, one can’t help but imagine a more conversely considerate play from act to act.

This is but a small misstep in an otherwise dynamic theatrical collaboration.

The first play, titled Hamlet by the Pool, embarks on a classic play-within-a-play narrative, taking cues from the farce of Noises Off. In fact, it takes so many cues from this rigorously formulated style that it hits a range of notes with an overarching edge of familiarity. This reconfiguration of Hamlet becomes a “what if” scenario with the sad prince placed in a modern Australian context. It’s a playful Shakespeare 101 class, with laid-back reflection on a modern audience’s relationship to the Jacobean tragedy. As the play progresses, it descends into macabre self-parody and the meta nature of Hamlet by the Pool becomes increasingly overstated. However, the play manages to retain its strong entertainment value.

With outstanding comic timing and deadpan characterisation from Lotte Beckett (yes, Beckett), and a shrewd, almost accusatory realisation of the control freak inside all of us from Eamon Dunphy, Hamlet by the Pool provides a range of impressive performances. The fluidity of the play is further aided by an assured, if a tad familiar, script from Isobel Milne.

The second play, Engraft, then immediately plunges Plastic Shakespeare into a broody trance-like state. Upon a sparse set, centred by a large metallic cube, four actors are seated—one, Lydia Bell, inside the cube. Written and directed by Sarah Bostock and Sophie Chauhan, the short play takes a tripartite structure in which each of the three outside the cube has a duologue with Bell, finalised by a solo epilogue from the central character.

Each section is tautly contained, dramaturgically precise and deeply considerate of oft-neglected student theatre components, costume, lighting and design. Bella Ruskin enters first playing the role of Mother to a childlike Bell, at times stubborn and others impish. Ruskin captures the maternal bond between the two amid themes of frustration, repetition and blame. Next is Lexie Gregory, who explores a romantic bond with Bell, at once in stark contrast with Ruskin’s section while retaining the natural evolution of the play and Bell’s character. It is here where we see Bell’s characterisation contoured with a history of the character, her frustrations evoking a matrilineal inheritance. Finally, Pamela Freire delivers some well-needed comic relief as Bell’s child in the highlight performance that traverses a range of moods from playful giddiness to impatient vitriol. Bell, in the meantime, continues to develop her character into a mosaic of past experiences, relationships and newfound understandings of herself.

Finally, Bell delivers an introspective, pained monologue, with shades of humour and gratitude throughout. This section is the most overtly Shakespearean of Engraft, comprised mostly of the sonnets. The entire structure of the dialogue begins to make sense as a reconfiguration of Shakespearean language in order to weave an un-Shakespearean tale of maternal and lesbian relationships.

This experimental piece explores a non-naturalistic style infused with dialogic realism, all underpinned by the language of Shakespeare. Some choices in blocking, such as the constant circling of Bell’s cube or Ruskin’s compulsive folding and re-folding of a jumper, feels stilted and demonstrates some limitations of the minimalist set; self-imposed limitations, it seems. However, Engraft is so thoroughly considered and densely constructed, it’s difficult to fault, particularly when the play feels so immensely entrancing from the beginning.

Ultimately, Plastic Shakespeare is an important and bold work in the MUSC canon, despite suffering from a few tonal issues and inconsistencies. With renewed vigour in its approach to old William, the future of MUSC is an exciting prospect; and it’s in good hands.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition One 2024


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