I was watching Pete Sampras lose a match he should have won blindfolded. Here was the best player in the world, a cultivated assassin in his winning lethal way, unable to beat an average player who wasn’t in the top 100. It was as if he couldn’t even play the game! There were flashes of genius, of course. And in those sweet moments, we thought all would come magically together again, and the day would be won.
But no. The undeniably great had been mysteriously reduced to the ordinary. What had gone wrong with Pete Sampras, I asked a friend, a tennis fanatic. “Bad day at the office,” he replied, and laughed, for such days in such company are so ridiculous they become laughable.
That’s essentially what has gone wrong with Robert Lepage’s new work, Elsinore . The visionary director, whose beautiful, sprawling and utterly brilliant drama, The Seven Streams of the River Ota , took theater into a new dimension at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, has returned to Brooklyn with a misfire, a curiosity, an amazing oddity conceived by a nutty professor or mad scientist. His eccentric Elsinore is a brain scan of Hamlet performed by one actor. There are flashes of genius, of course. But Mr. Lepage has had a bad day at the office.
Mind you, his bad days are never boring. More than anyone at work in the avant-garde today, this supreme director is telling stories in ways that we know and have never known. It isn’t just that he marries technology to theater more inventively than anyone. (Sooner or later, someone else will come up with bigger and better technology.) It is more that his exciting use of image and film and words has created its own conventions, mutating into a new form of theater. I wrote of his Seven Streams that, in risky, sometimes rambling ways I’ve never experienced in the theater before, he expands frontiers by making life extraordinary. “Goodness knows where Robert Lepage is headed next,” I wisely wrote at the time. “He could easily foul up, easily fall. It is in the nature of things.”
That’s true! Strip away for a moment everything in his deconstructed solo version of Hamlet -except his Hamlet. We might wonder from the outset what is actually gained by a solo version of Hamlet in which the actor-Peter Darling-must play all the roles like a demented Jekyll and Hyde. Mr. Lepage has pointed out that the action takes place entirely inside Hamlet’s head-within the crowded Elsinore, as it were, of Hamlet’s unhinged mind. But the outcome is a test of ingenuity rather than of interpretation, like the tricks of an escape artist, a drowning Houdini.
As we watched Mr. Darling’s precarious balancing act as Hamlet, Hamlet’s mom, the King, Polonius, Ophelia, the gravediggers, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, among others, we think-and can’t help thinking-how on earth are the actor and director going to pull off this one ?
How, for example, can the actor play both Hamlet and the King in conversation with each other while seated at opposite ends of a banquet table? Well, Mr. Darling could dash from one end of the table to the other, I guess. But that would be silly. Mr. Lepage’s solution is to have the table spin around with the actor manically rotating roles as the table itself rotates. Which is also plain silly. In any case, we’re not listening to a word, so distracted are we by Mr. Lepage’s postmodern version of The Exorcist .
The experimental production can be wonderfully and almost childishly nuts. Elsinore is an obsessive work-in-progress, and Mr. Lepage, like his possessed hero, is living very dangerously. To take one other example of a fall from the high wire: How does he manage to stage Hamlet dueling with himself? In other words, how can he stage Hamlet’s showdown sword fight with Laertes when he has only one actor in the piece?
Well, there’s an extraordinary experiment with video in which a minicam seems to be bizarrely attached to the blade of a sword. Whose sword? The outcome is wobbly and whimsical. It’s also unexciting. Shakespeare knew for sure that there’s nothing like a good sword fight. But we don’t get one here. Then again, this Hamlet seems able to morph into two. How? In such pseudomagical moments, Elsinore is more Hamlet-meets-Penn and Teller’s “Refrigerator Tour.”
Mr. Lepage is here the magician with too much up his sleeve. His solo Hamlet has created a schizoid hero with famous soliloquies attached. In that surprising sense, the director goes too far and not far enough. The soliloquies seem to belong to another pretty conventional production. Nor, I’m afraid, is the capable Peter Darling a magnetic actor. He makes a witty Claudius and a touching, gently mad Ophelia, but there is no music in his prince.
And who is Mr. Lepage’s prince? Hamlet is a poet and prince, scholar and antihero, a public figure in trauma, a private young man in adolescent grief, a Renaissance hero wracked by indecision, an Oedipal casebook, someone driven to madness who feigns madness, an actor, a miscast avenger, a tragic lover, a melancholic who is tender, virile, brutal and suicidal. And, most unusually, he’s a royal who loves the theater.
Take your pick! “What strikes me about Hamlet is his inability to link the actions he must take to his own beliefs,” Mr. Lepage explains. For him, it is Hamlet’s coolness, his absence of blind passion, that prevents him from doing what he has to do. “Some may say this isn’t the most important paradox in Hamlet’s nature, but for me, it’s the only one, because it’s one I share.”
Maybe so. But the prince’s indecisive intellectual core is well known, and the director’s interpretation confines Hamlet to the neurotic. There are times, too, when this raging, one-dimensional Hamlet is lost in the shadowy, dangerous turrets of Elsinore, drowning in technology. That’s the last thing I thought I would say. Mr. Lepage is an artist half in love with stage technology and its possibilities, but he isn’t its slave. To the contrary, the quiet, understated naturalism of Seven Streams was its finest contribution. The images-the stage pictures-were staggering and unique. But for all the brilliant effects, Seven Streams was an epic story well told.
His earlier, and irresistibly flashier, Needles and Opium was his surrealistic nod to Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou . He went into the airborne, instinctive free fall of the Surrealists with an astonishing use of sound, language, jazz, shadow play and film. As with Elsinore , he could turn a screen or wall into an expanding universe, a moving graphic, a black hole, heaven and earth. And he could do it with natural magic, which became the great achievement of Seven Streams . But the shaky Elsinore contains false magic-the ultimate destiny of the Surrealists.
In the end, the Surrealists weren’t free; they were stylized. And where was their content but lost in pretty effects, streams of consciousness and arty trances? Mr. Lepage’s Elsinore is too self-conscious, too hit-and-miss. It isn’t artless enough. Yet there are images of remarkable beauty-the sheets of an incestuous bed, the ghost of a king glimpsed murkily through a tapestry, the prince literally spinning in the cosmos, the drowning Ophelia disappearing in space, into an open grave, through the looking glass.
Such supreme moments-with set design by Carl Fillion-are priceless, and Mr. Lepage at his creative best is without equal. The rest, as Hamlet says disapprovingly to the Players, is overdone. “Now, this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must, in your allowance, o’erweigh a whole theater of others.” It bears study! But in other judicious words, Elsinore isn’t all one had hoped.