On Saturday night, Teatre Lliure’s European House — Hamlet’s Prologue Without Words proved an unexpected delight. The play takes the events just prior to the beginning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as its subject — from the death of Hamlet’s father to his uncle Claudius’ moves on Queen Gertrude — and tells this story largely without dialogue. Director Alex Rigola, in giving a short introduction to the production, said that he had been inspired by the appeal of voyeurism.
The set, a cross-section of a three-story house providing views into nine separate spaces, was ingenious. The rooms were wired for sound, so though few words were spoken, every little noise within the house could be heard. This rather negated the idea of voyeurism for this reviewer, but the lack of dialogue was nevertheless intriguing. It presented a family who in the aftermath of a father’s death could not find words to express their feelings.
Part of the fun was placing the characters and spotting the innumerable references to the Shakespeare play. But even simply as a portrait of a dysfunctional family, the show was remarkably effective. Action was often taking place in more than one room at a time, but despite this, the scene never seemed cluttered or confused.
The lack of dialogue never came across as overtly contrived, nor did the explicit nudity, which worked well in the context of the play. The short running time of just 60 minutes also worked well, giving the director just enough time to give his ideas full expression. Literary games and stylistic gimmicks can become labored, however witty or innovative, and keeping European House short also kept the enjoyment fresh.
While European House did not aspire to be a major work of theater, neither was it just a bit of fluff. Within the dysfunctional family many of the themes from Shakespeare’s play — from Oedipal lust to alienation and the temptations of madness — are all touched on, making the show as much a contemporary domestic drama as a literary game.
Though there was a good crowd in the theater, European House was probably the most under-subscribed event in the Taipei Arts Festival so far. Publicity material was not particularly successful in highlighting its appeal, with many in the audience seeming to have little idea of what to expect going in. At the end of the show, the director and the cast received enthusiastic applause.
The audience knew it was in for an unconventional evening with the Taipei Chinese Orchestra (TCO, 台北市立國樂團) when guest conductor Chien Wen-pin (簡文彬) rose to take a bow after the first piece of What a Tone! (跳Tone!) to reveal he had had the image of a skull shaved into the back of his head. Unconventional was definitely the word of the night on Friday at Novel Hall as the TCO paired up with Cloud Gate 2 as part of the Taipei Arts Festival.
Huang Yi (黃翊) the 25-year-old wunderkind of Taiwan’s dance world, created Red (紅) and TA-TA for Now, which could have been subtitled “fun with five dancers, five chairs and a violinist,” showing both his usual flair for the offbeat and his total command of technique.
The final piece on the program, Happiness and Music (樂), by Cloud Gate 2’s resident choreographer Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍), was a true collaboration between the two groups, as several of the TCO musicians gamely appeared on stage in the unusual role as dancers, while some of the dancers demonstrated their musical talents — and a few demonstrated their lack of playing ability. The appearance of several well-known musicians cavorting on stage delighted the orchestra’s cognoscenti, who greeted each musician’s initial appearance with a wave of giggles. In additional to the usual erhu, lutes and flutes, pots, pans, clackers and even a blow-up plastic hammer were played, while Chien conducted by waving a pot in his left hand and a deep-fryer scooper in his right.