Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Day 5 Round Up

PJ Choi, Young Journalist with a round up of Day 5 of Connections at the NT

Prince of Denmark- Michael Lesslie
The last day of the Connections Festival saw two plays which were- in their own ways- re-imaginings of Hamlet and Alice in Wonderland. 

Michael Lesslie’s Prince of Denmark was originally written as a companion to the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet in 2010. Its inclusion in the Connections Festival is extremely apt. The young actors step into their roles and unphased by the big names that will later play their roles in various productions of Hamlet, make them their own with aplomb. Prince of Denmark sees the relationship between a teenage Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes. Lesslie manages to capture the nuances of Shakespeare’s brooding Hamlet- torn between his duties as a Prince and his own feelings- “Am I a man or a prince?” The strong willed, yet ultimately passive and powerless character of Ophelia is explored further in this play, with Hamlet choosing going to university in Wittenberg over a relationship with her, and characters with minor roles in the original Hamlet are given more prominent roles. The original role of Osric is but a mere few pages in the play but in Prince of Denmark is expanded to a suitably foppish character - true to original form providing well timed comic relief.
Prince of Denmark, Calderdale Theatre School. Photo: Simon Annand
The play is written in iambic pentameter- a nod to the format employed by Shakespeare- but in contemporary English. This combination of Elizabethan and modern in not only the language but also with the costumes remind us of the youthful nature that Lesslie and the Connections festival are aiming to convey. Ophelia’s dress is unmistakeably Elizabethan in design, but in turquoise and pink foil, the colours put a contemporary twist on traditional dress. The boys are in trainers and skinny jeans with brocade jackets and capes. The costumes paying homage to the original Elizabethan drama, but like the concept of the play itself with the idea of a new generation imprinted in the audience’s mind.

The action in the play echoes the events in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes is revisited as the climax of the action in Lesslie’s play- with some impressive stage fighting by the young actors. The tensions between the two in this prequel are a suitable additional justification for the tensions that run in Hamlet as the sequel to Prince of Denmark.
Lesslie provides us with subtle allusions throughout Prince of Denmark to make those with a previous knowledge of Hamlet give a knowing chuckle without too many claggy references, but as a standalone piece addresses issues still relevant to the youth of today- going to university, the importance of reputation, family affairs to name a few- which makes Prince of Denmark not only an effective prequel to The Bard’s tragedy, but an extremely worthy participant in the Connections Festival.

Alice by Heart- Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater
When asked about their play in the Connection Writers’ Forum, which I was fortunate enough to partake in, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater were asked about their work and its relevance to the youth today. Sater answers that the story of Alice in is an extended metaphor about drugs and sex. I was excited to see Alice by Heart knowing that Sheik and Sater had both previously written Spring Awakening which I greatly enjoyed- drawing further comparison to Spring Awakening, this play also deals with timeless teenage issues such as sex, drugs and death. Alice by Heart, however, seems to certainly be more explicit about the issues with songs including lyrics such as “Now you’ve found the hole” and “And when we’re high.” When Alice asks if the White Rabbit has “found someone else to give his gloves” and the Cheshire Cat purrs her approval of the combination of words “pleasure” and “puss” the allusions to sex are extremely thinly veiled, as are the references to drugs with the frequent calls to “Mary Ann.”

The sultry bass in the third musical number “Aren’t you getting bigger?” adds to the possible and probable interpretation of the song as a euphemism for sex as well as addressing the main theme of growing up which runs throughout the play. There is something to be said about the effect of Sheik and Sater’s music. Their melodies in minor key are able to shake something within you- “Isn’t it a trial?” addresses growing older and the poignant combination of music and lyrics linger with you long after the end. “Chilling the regrets” is reminiscent of music by Jefferson Airplane creates an almost hallucinatory effect on the listener, and the frequent wordplay emulating the trippy experience which Alice is currently experiencing. It is thrilling that Sheik and Sater are able to send shivers every time I listen to their music. I was extremely impressed with the way in which the young actors were able to fill the theatre with their extraordinary stage presence, a feat that all the actors should be extremely proud of- as Nicholas Hytner stated in the closing of the festival.
Alice by Heart, Flying High Theatre Company. Photo: Simon Annand

The play, whilst using characters from the Lewis Carroll’s original story, dissects the usual Alice story and rearranges it in such a way that it overthrows the traditional perception. By using meta-literary references to the Carroll’s book, having Alice ‘turn the pages’ and the White Rabbit calling Alice out on omitting the episode where she destroys his house, Sheik and Sater are able to deploy the themes prevalent in the original tale whilst rewriting the story to suit a more teenage driven agenda. The song “We’re sick to death of Aliceness” shows how the story has been turned on its head with the revamped characters now rebelling against the protagonist singing lines such as “stop analysing everything you’ve read.”

The resonating message to be taken away from the play is one about growing up, a message which links all of the plays seen in the past five days-what better way to celebrate a festival promoting youth in theatre than teenage retellings of classic stories? The answer to this question makes Alice by Heart a fitting and fantastic conclusion to the Connections Festival 2012.

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