[Dance of Death]
Neither an overly-intellectual deconstruction of Hamlet (a la Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine) or an alternative take on the play (a la Thomas Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Binge Culture’s Yorick! merely uses Shakespeare’s canonical text as a launching pad for their whimsical and absurd exploration of mortality.
And mortality, being the wide-reaching topic it is, is a somewhat loose umbrella to cover a whole show with. Instead of a narrative backbone to structure the piece, the conventions of musical theatre and the jubilant cast become the glue that hold everything together. Those expecting the familiar genre of Shakespearean tragedy might be disappointed, but under Joel Baxendale’s playful direction the devised text manages to find a consistent tone and style full of melancholy insights. These potentially dour observations are buoyed up by Rachel Baker, Isobel MacKinnon and Freya Finch, the stars of the show.
Finch in particular nails the high camp in the text, showing off her slapstick muscles with ease. MacKinnon, on the other hand, is given a literally showstopping sequence to bring a sincerity and weight to the performance. Without divulging too many details, it’s a surprising and heartbreaking portrait of someone faced with sudden and unexpected loss.
But the show tends to focus on the unabashedly absurd, creating interesting images and moments that remind us of our impending dooms. The comedic highlights include a reminder of all those who will die and a porny pantomime of Hamlet and Leartes’ duel.
Binge Culture have never been afraid of creating theatre with visible puppet strings, where the stage and artifice are always apparent. While Auckland audiences might be more familiar with their more site-specific fringe efforts (Whales, Enter the New World, Happy Hour), the change to the Loft at Q Theatre hasn’t resulted in any loss of their signature charm. Baxendale specifically toys with constructing purposefully artificial images, ones that stimulate the audience’s imaginations rather than presenting anything akin to realism. We watch as our characters float through space or witness the hysteric cries of funeral. Or the literal construction and deconstruction of the show’s set.
If the song and dance numbers lack the slick polish of Broadway musicals, and are unlikely to stick in your head long after, they serve to undercut and diffuse moments that are too dark or serious. The presence of keyboardist and composer Oliver Devlin also brings a down-to-earth quality to the proceedings.
It’s unfortunate that the show rarely mines the well of grief as deep as it could though, leaving the examination of death almost too digestible. While it allows us to confront the existential dread of the subject head-on, the weight and ramifications of death are brushed over, aside from MacKinnon’s aforementioned scene.
The show’s purpose can feel strangely unclear at times, but as a piece of theatre that fills us with a sense of joy rather than doom over our inevitable end, its virtues are easy to celebrate. Even if it does so by ignoring that we are, as the Prince of Denmark would say, the quintessence of dust.
Yorick! is presented by Binge Culture, Q Matchbox and Zanetti Productions and plays at Q Loft until 23 June.