Saturday, 20 October 2018

Re-Member Me by Dickie Beau

Re-Member Me as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…”

Creator and performer Dickie Beau isn’t here to speak the speech of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he’s here to lip-synch some of the great performances of Hamlet that have ever been recorded.

In the midst of his research, though, he became obsessed with Hamlets who have not been recorded, lost to the ephemeral nature of theatre – disappeared like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

“Remember Me,” Hamlet’s father tells him before disappearing into the ether. It is the inciting incident of the play, leading the young prince to determine the truth behind his father’s death.

Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me is about actors and acting and the performance of Hamlet, not about the play or the character itself. It is important to this show that this Shakespearean tragedy is one of the most produced play texts in the English language, because of the number of people who have played him and the various ways he’s been played.

The show revisits performances by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellan and other British actors who have not yet been knighted. Beau performs as Stephen Ashby, a former dresser at the National Theatre, who was working the night Daniel Day Lewis left the stage after Act 1, Scene 5, believing he had seen the ghost of his own father while performing.

Day Lewis was so shaken by the vision, he did not go back on that night, and Ashby had to take what was essential from Day Lewis’ costume so he could dress understudy Jeremy Northam, for Northam to finish the play. Later, in the same production, actor Ian Charleson took over the role – and that’s where much of Beau’s show is focused.

Where Day Lewis’ performance was recorded, Charleson’s was not. Where Day Lewis got rave reviews, Charleson’s performance as the replacement in the role may never have been reviewed, if not for friends convincing the Sunday Times’ chief critic, John Peter, to write about it. If theatre shows disappear, one of the few ways they can live on is in reviews.

Many of the actors that Beau lip-synchs as part of this show are gay men, talking about Charleson, another gay man, whose performance as Hamlet would be his last before succumbing to an AIDS-related illness weeks later. The discussion of the acting fraternity evolves into a discussion of the LGBT community, and these men’s struggles even amid successful stage and screen careers.

I’ve talked a lot about what this show is saying and what it is trying to accomplish, because I admire the thought that went into this performance of performance, this deconstruction of the pieces of acting – and putting someone’s own words into another man’s mouth. I found it baffling, though. It was a strange kind of documentary, without really allowing me to connect with any of the speakers, beyond recognising Beau is able to capture McKellan’s mannerisms, without having to mimic his voice.

Blending in songs from the Village People and Barbra Streisand upped the queer content and lay the groundwork for the real focus of the piece, without feeling like a particularly interesting commentary on the work Hamlet or the work of these various Hamlets. The show is intellectually heady and the disco beats brought in another kind of familiarity, but I still felt emotionally distanced through much of the performance.

By the end, Beau has reconstructed – re-membered – a handful of mannequins which littered the stage early in the show. They stand as a fascinating tableau, in costumes that allude to Hamlet, but stuck in a hospital ward. It evokes both the Dane’s death scene (“the rest is silence”) and the AIDS epidemic (“Silence = Death”) that claimed a generation of gay men, and devastated theatre communities in London and New York. It’s a striking image.

The great Hamlets come and go. Ian Charleson is gone. Re-Member Me tries to resurrect both, but only does so superficially – stealing the voices of the men who knew them in a way that made me think hard and wish there’d been some other way to know this story.

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