In case you missed Theatre Mitu’s production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet that premiered at NYUAD’s Arts Center on 16 April, here is—not a review, but more of a reflective program guide to a theater experience unlike many others.
HOW TO EXPERIENCE HAMLET/UR-HAMLET:
- Show up to the Arts Center 30 minutes prior to the show. Not fifteen, because by then the line gets ridiculously long and if you haven’t gotten your ticket by then – tough luck.
- While lining up, go through the pamphlet and notice the 6-page bibliography. Silently question (or out loud, depending on whether or not you want to make small-talk with the stranger in front of you) whether or not you’ll be able to understand the play without knowing any of the works cited. Find the N-Sync song within the bibliography, and laugh because maybe you’ll be okay. Silently/out loud curse yourself for not being as worldly and intellectual as the bibliography clearly expects you to be. Maybe if you took that one theatre class with that one professor from that one Ivy League school, you would’ve been more prepared. Stupid class registration.
- Continue lining up. Realize that you don’t know what to expect.
- Make a lame joke about how this play-slash-theatre piece will “exceed your expectations,” partly because you don’t really have any.
- Hamlet is the one where the guy’s wife goes “UNSEX ME HERE,” right?
- Listen to director Ruben Polendo’s opening remarks, and then be ushered into the theatre in groups. Realize you’re not going to a conventional play. You’re not going to be sitting down for the next hour and fifteen minutes.
- Walk around the set pieces at your leisure, trying not to bump into people while also appreciating each individual piece while also keeping in mind that you can’t stay in one exhibit for too long because at one point rock music will play from a plastic box in the middle of the set to signal the staged performance.
- Hear the rock music and gather to the centre of the theater. If you’re early, watch as people slowly trickle into the front. Feel a sense of collectivity as your pulse quickens to the beat.
- Watch as Aysan Celik and company dominate the glass stage. They’re elevated above the rest of us, they’re caged and yet clearly in charge. Everyone is in awe.
- Repeat steps 7 – 9 two more times.
- A female voice, almost like a robot, says “the installation is now closed”. There is no curtain call. You clap anyway.The performance ends.
Before I went to this Theater Mitu production of Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet , I had to admit something to myself: I am sick of Hamlet. God forbid, though, that a literature major should say that. What many others saw as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, I saw as a play about an arrogant (but, I will admit, really witty) teenager who messes everything up because he feels like he can – as if seeing a ghostly apparition is the same as getting supernatural powers.
None of that mattered, though, because Theater Mitu’s production has very little to do with being a faithful representation of the Bard’s play. When you walked into the theater space, you were greeted by a scrolling synopsis of the play, where certain words change on screen in a way that completely alters the meaning of the text (ie. Horatio as Hamlet’s friend/lover/buddy/soldier). If we take the opening piece as a sort of introduction to the rest of the installations, it becomes very clear from the onset that whatever the audience believes Hamlet to be won’t necessarily be seen for the next hour and fifteen minutes. I suppose that’s the problem that Theater Mitu’s production wanted to tackle: when everyone thinks they know what Hamlet is, who’s to say what the right interpretation is?
This epistemic dilemma is at the heart of the production. As the audience waited in line to enter the installation, Ruben Polendo encouraged everyone to take their time with the exhibit and experience the pieces in whichever order they please. This wasn’t a play to see with your group of 20 friends, where your opinions become heavily influenced by what your current crush thinks. You’re encouraged to be on your own and revel in your isolation. In a way, I suppose, the isolation makes you like Hamlet: with all the deception surrounding him, only Hamlet can say what it’s like to be Hamlet.
I guess that makes Hamlet (the character) like us. No one can really know what it’s like to be you except you yourself: the experiences you go through, the choices you make on what influences you is all a matter of subjectivity. Aysan Celik plays a minor role in the individual set pieces – standing in a corner with her back to the audience while an old reel of Hamlet plays on her naked back – but onstage, as Hamlet, she mixes with the flurry of it all. As soon as the rock music stops, the actors perform alongside videos looping on the monitors attached to the cage. All the while, audience members shift around the cage, hoping for a better look. It’s very chaotic, but also very funny. At one point Celik/Hamlet performs a piece where she stands trial while mimicking the gestures of a 60’s singer (think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) on the screen. The famous “to be or not to be” speech gets re-imagined as a playground rhyme-slash-tap dance piece.
Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet was a lot to take in. If I were to sum up the piece, it would be about Hamlet’s struggle to find himself – or herself, for that matter. The video pieces that cut into the onstage performance, coupled with the diversity of the installation pieces suggest aspects of our experiences: what influences us, as well as what we choose to influence. Although each installation piece seemed utterly detached from everything else, each piece draws from Shakespeare’s play. Everything is influenced by Hamlet, but onstage Hamlet is influenced by everything. The beauty of Theater Mitu’s piece stems from the very fact that it does not resemble the original play, and you could easily get away with a marginal knowledge of the original text. As I was walking around, I noticed people of all ages experiencing the show. I’d bet that only a handful of people could recite the whole play by heart, and that some people in the audience have never read Hamlet at all.
At the end of the day, though, the “true meaning” of Hamlet doesn’t matter. We may argue about the merits of deconstructive theater and how much a play should resemble the original text, but with Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet, everyone’s a winner. When I saw the show, I tended to focus on ideas of psychology and the self, but that’s not to say that that’s the only thing I noticed. In fact, I could’ve written this article about the portrayal of sexual relationships, the idea of love in general, the role of gender…the list goes on. What I think of Hamlet may not be what you think of Hamlet, but it doesn’t matter.
Oftentimes when we approach a canonical piece of literature – especially with Shakespeare – we get obsessed with finding out what the “correct” interpretation is, what the “true meaning” of the text is, and what Shakespeare meant the play to be. While we should take into consideration all these things, the beauty of studying these literary texts also comes from the idea that we inject our own meaning into it. Different readers will approach Hamlet in a different way, and that’s what Hamlet/Ur-Hamlet strives to achieve. It’s not a theater performance meant to represent Hamlet in the years to come, but rather an invitation for the audience to re-experience what it’s like to construct meaning for themselves.
[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu]
In 2013, four NYUAD students began interviewing their classmates about their experiences in Abu Dhabi. As the starting point for the interviews, they used seven questions: Why are you scared? Why do you feel repressed? Why do you feel liberated? Why do you regret coming here? Why do you love it here? What are you hiding? Why are you proud?
These interviews developed into a documentary theater piece called Headspace, which invited the NYUAD community to think about what it means to be a student — particularly a female student — in Abu Dhabi. Headspace was performed for two nights, to a packed audience of staff, students, faculty, and administrators; the show sparked tears of laughter and recognition among everyone in the audience.
After the show, the four creators, Valentina Vela, Sachi Leith, Laura Evans, and Veronica Houk, talked with Cyrus Patell and Deborah Williams about the project’s origins and their creative methodology. We are presenting excerpts from that interview to commemorate that first Headspace and to set the stage for the second Headspace, which will be performed on Saturday, December 13 at 2 p.m. in the Amphitheater.
Valentina Vela: I was working on political theater in a theater class, and my professor, Deb Levine, asked what I would talk about in a political theater piece. I told her, “I want talk about our experience and about all the hard conversations we’re not having in a way that is not the Real AD Show, not open mic, not cafeteria conversation — to open a forum for more conversations.
So I took a little bit of the model of “Occupy Wall Street”: as soon as it started, people began saying that they should document it. So they started interviewing people and performing it to the same people who were occupying Wall Street. People were performing their own realities, and you could take a break from occupying Wall Street to come and see somebody talk about occupying Wall Street, and then come back. A community steps out, thinks about what it’s doing, and then regenerates and continues growing — that, I think, is what we wanted to do.
Sachi Leith: I was excited about writing it, more from the standpoint of writing about “the university” than writing about women. And then over the course of the project I think it was the gender piece that became more important for me.
Vela: We created a list of things we want to talk about. And that informed our questions, but then after we did the interviews there were so many other things to talk about that we kept adding questions and adding questions. The list became huge, so we created this post-it wall that had all these issues that we wanted to talk about. Then we sub-divided it for writing. And then as we started writing we were, like, “I think it is about so much more. And I want to talk about this now.”
Laura Evans: One of the things that was difficult was that you do the interview, and in the moment, you’re like, “Yeah, I totally get what you’re saying.” And then three weeks later you’re looking at a transcript, and when you look at it, you think, “What?” I mean, people don’t speak in coherent or well-formed sentences at all!
Vela: And they contradict themselves.
Evans: And then when you show the material to the actors, they go through the lines and say things like “This makes no sense: my character is not being coherent, has no intention.” But all I am thinking is, “Man, this is just somebody sitting on my couch, like, crying about their lives.”
Leith: Like Valentina was saying, sometimes things don’t make sense. But, as writers, we want things to make sense, but it’s not the point that they make sense. It’s the point that there are all these contradictions. And how do you bring that out without making it just seem like you’ve made a mistake.
Vela: It would happen that we’d write a part that looks like a story, and it makes complete sense. And then one of us would say, “But you’re not voicing all the contradictions.” And then someone else would say, “Look at this interview,” which would just mess up everything. We had to accept those changes and stop the piece from being this perfect sphere and make it more into this weird rock with so many angles.
Veronica Houk: The question of authorship got really complicated. Because the four of us were working together. One of us would sort of put the wheels in motion, or maybe two of us, and then all of us had our fingers in everyone’s work. So all of our work is essentially everyone’s. Plus, when we wrote it, we sometimes combined lots of different interviews. And then it was performed, and someone else helped design interactive media and mise en scene. So, this represents creative collaboration between the four of us — and the community too. It felt complicated.
Cyrus Patell: Was the work of Anna Deveare Smith important to you? Her work is similar, although she tends to start with a trauma of some kind. There’s a riot. People are killed. She goes and interviews participants or she gets a transcript and then she crafts a monologue out of it. But it is always a monologue when she does it. … And then she tries to get across the specificity of all of these people: for example, she plays a Korean shop owner in the L.A. riots after Rodney King. And she’ll make you want to believe that she’s inhabiting that persona. There’s a kind of very local specificity that she’s getting at. But you tried to work more with composite characters. What difference does that make?
Leith: We live in such a small community. And, unlike Anna Deavere Smith, we’re presenting this directly to the people that we interviewed and directly to people who know the people that we interviewed. So we didn’t wanna say, “Oh, like, I am half Taiwanese and from Vermont,” because– you know, everyone will know who the “I” is. Or, “Oh, I’m Colombian but I live in Peru.” Here, where everybody knows everybody’s business, we didn’t want people to be sitting in the audience wondering, “Do you think that’s…so and so?”
Vela: On the day before opening night, we realized that we might be exposing somebody, and so we had to change words. The four of us had a horrible fight [laughs] at the end about that, but we had to change it.
Leith: But that was part of my dark time, I guess [laughs], because everything started to sound the same and started to sound like really, like, nicely put together and over-edited — we had taken away some of those distinctive qualities of people’s lives or people’s speeches. Like the ironing the grilled cheese scene. The first time we wrote that, it was really strong. And very opinionated. The first time we wrote it, there was a lot of, I guess, my anger in it. And then we edited that out, but we fought about that a lot. It ended up being funny, the way the actors did it, but I will never be satisfied just because it — it always feels like we’re going too easy on them.
Patell: So, if Headspace were going to become a tradition at NYUAD, what aspects of it would you propose should become the tradition?
Leith: I think the interviews. I would do all of the interviews again.
Evans: Yes, exactly. When the community talking to itself about itself, it’s so powerful.
Patell: Can you imagine performing this particular piece in four years when everyone who’s here now has graduated and it’s another community?
Houk: I think it could be performed in another space. But the feeling would be completely different. At this show, it was fantastic seeing professors curled up in front, even professors I had in particular thought were very intimidating. But then they were curled up on a beanbag, like, next to, like—
Evans: A student. [Laughs.]
Houk: And they were laughing at all of our kind of crude jokes. And I thought, “Oh, hey. I could maybe talk to you at some point in my life.”
Evans: I think that it’s representative of now. But I think that maybe in six years there might be the need for another Headspace.
Vela: When you think of pieces like Laramie Project, it’s so grounded in its political and social context. But then when you see Laramie Project Ten Years Later, it’s revisiting the same project with a different perspective. And I think that’s more along the lines of what it would be to revisit Headspace in a few years.
Leith: This project, all the interviews and all of our processes are more of like—some weird form of history.
Going meta in Headspace: authors Vela, Evans, Houk, and Leith onstage.
Members of the NYUAD community are invited to come see the next version of “weird history” created by the Headspace team: hear your voices and the voices of your community, and think about what the Headspace project should be for next year.
[Please note that this interview has been condensed and edited. All photos are courtesy of Nikolai Kozak.]