by Molly Kenney
By design, The Factory’s Hamlet is shrouded in mystery. The production’s producers require prospective audience members to be gathered almost entirely by word of mouth and electronically: one must join their Facebook group or listserv to find out the production’s location. Seeing this Hamlet isn’t easy. Each week, the venue is somewhere new in London, and The Factory only announces it a few days before each Sunday’s 5:00 p.m. show. Also, audience members should be prepared to bring their own props, be drafted for a rock-paper-scissors game to choose the cast, to move around quite a bit during the show — basically to leave any preconceived notions of “theater” at the door.
I don’t usually go for this. “Interactive theater” scares me. I don’t want to be dragged up on stage to make a fool of myself, and I’ve never really cared for leaving a show covered in paint or water or some other substance flung from the stage. But The Factory’s Hamlet transcends interactive — and normal — and it does so with incredible style, humor, and talent.
Our Hamlet took place in The Nave, the main part of an old church in Highbury and Islington that is undergoing renovation. We were told to sit anywhere, and the audience naturally created a circle of chairs, partly to avoid the tarp and scaffolding filling the church and partly the big carpenter’s table in the center looked vaguely stage-like. I sat nervously with my stuffed Highland coo (a giant reddish cow-thing from Scotland) on my lap, while my boyfriend held a roll of toilet paper. The man sitting behind me fiddled with an iron, and the woman on my right shifted a cabbage from hand to hand.
The actors and director had no costumes. They just wore their street clothes (the guy who played Hamlet wore jeans so tight I was concerned for his ability to move and reproduce), and we did indeed pick the cast for the night via battles of rock-paper-scissors. The director then instructed us that for each of the show’s five acts, the audience would move around, changing the acting space, and that the actors would be subject to new rules. The actors would have ten seconds before each act to look around at the props we’d brought. The second the director finished speaking, what The Factory describes as “the chaos” began.
Hamlet brandished a plastic recorder, fighting battles by playing the most discordant note possible, and his victims died by plugging their ears with their fingers. In the final act, everyone died this way, and Hamlet delivered his final speech by slowly bringing his fingers to his ears. The second act came with the requirement that the actors be touching someone any time they spoke. Actors were on audience members’ laps, dragging them to their feet, or, in my case, spraying tan lotion on their faces. (Hamlet did this to me, and despite my distaste for getting dirty while theater-going, the actor was very attractive and I forgave him.) In his soliloquy at the beginning of Act Three, Hamlet tossed condoms to the audience, which fit perfectly with the speech’s diction of conception. There was wrestling, a princess crown, a giant leek, a nip of rum, and cotton balls. The King ate Pringles, and each chip was another line of a letter from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And finally, a fitting end to the absurdity: Hamlet and Laertes dueled with a plastic duck and rubber chicken, bawk-bawking at each other while bouncing the fowl off audience members’ heads.
It sounds ridiculous, and some of it was, but The Factory’s players knew their stuff. These actors were so familiar with the dialogue and its many meanings (quite the feat, considering that they had to know all the parts) that they designed each play on words while dodging haphazardly placed chairs and working with a set of props that looked like the ingredients of a Dali painting. They managed to preserve the gravitas of one of Shakespeare’s best tragedies while stepping far outside the bounds of conventional Shakespearean theater. It was completely strange and completely amazing.
The Factory’s mission for their Hamlet Project is to answer the question: “Can you achieve absolute artistic freedom with absolutely no money and sustain it indefinitely?” I can sympathize with the absolutely no money part, but for this art, I’ll scrounge up ₤10 and go in search of the next location of the wonderful chaos.
(The logo graphic for The Factory's Hamlet Project is from the production's promotional and press packet.)
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by Molly Kenney