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European House | Teatre Lliure
Written by Simon Piening   
Friday, 26 October 2007 11:38
European House | Teatre LliurePhotos - Ros Ribas

Spanish theatre company Teatre Lliure bring their acclaimed production of European House to the 2007 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

European House opens in the kitchen of a contemporary, well-heeled household, with one of the domestic help going about her duties. She wipes the bench, dries the dishes, takes a phone message – she works efficiently but with little apparent urgency. She pauses for a cup of tea. The milk is suspect. She tips it out. Another, younger, servant arrives with some groceries – the pair have an understanding and an already established routine - no need yet for words.

A mother and son arrive dressed in sombre black, returning, possibly, from a funeral. They are clearly weary and right now have little to say to each other. The mother and son, coincidentally, we are told in the programme notes, are named Gertrude and Hamlet.

Other characters begin to arrive – a university buddy of Hamlet’s, trying to avoid discussing the obvious, lends gentle support to his friend by just “hanging out”. We’ve moved now from the kitchen on the ground floor to Hamlet’s room on the third level. They listen to a CD. More friends arrive and we begin to see the intersection with Shakespeare’s famous tale. Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. They open a window and manage a sneaky cigarette. Downstairs a businessman, Claudius, arrives and offers comfort to Gertrude. Polonius - a lawyer or adviser of some kind - has a brief case full of documents that need to be signed.

In European House (subtitled “Hamlet's prologue without words”), creator and director Alex Rigola ingeniously manages to tell the story, or a version of, Hamlet in the moments between the funeral of Hamlet’s father up until the start of the play as we know it. What’s more, he manages to do so almost entirely without the use of words in such a way that feels completely natural. What might have appeared contrived and gimmicky in reality matches beautifully the sombre tone of the gathering. The characters find other ways to speak – or indeed to avoid speaking. It is of course an astute move too – in a work that is so inextricably linked to a recognised masterpiece of language, it would be a brave company indeed that attempted to match Shakespeare’s genius in text – better to use no words at all.

As an audience, we are generally accustomed to viewing through the “fourth wall” but in European House, we see an entire three-story home, in cross-section. The brilliant multi-level set (Sebastia Brosa & Bibiana Puigdefabregas) allows the characters to split off into their separate compartments, and without the need to follow every conversation, we are able to simultaneously experience a number of narrative threads.

In the program notes, Rigola says “this is a show that is only suitable for voyeurs” and this is emphasised in a number of uncomfortable moments, like Hamlet taking a shower, or Rosencrantz going to the toilet. But more importantly we are left with the feeling we are prying on an entire household coming to terms with their private grief.

There is an odd moment towards the end of the play, where text flashes on the set, which frankly seems unnecessary and somewhat at odds with the mood otherwise so carefully constructed. The line "Choose to live and make changes or simply die in life" is hardly "To be or not to be," and only really underlines the fact they were better off working without text altogether. 

Rigola has created a superb, gentle masterpiece, where every gesture takes on a greater meaning because of what we already know. He chooses - or rather imagines - an intriguing moment in time. In his version Hamlet and Ophelia are only just experiencing the beginnings of love. Gertrude and Claudius are yet to fall. Laertes, who will one day wield the poisoned sword that ultimately kills Hamlet, is still a friend. But by the end of the hour, the seeds of their collective downfall have been sown. Its not quite Shakespeare's Hamlet, but a quietly engaging work nonetheless.

Melbourne International Arts Festival presents
Teatre Lliure
European House
Hamlet's Prologue without Words

Venue: the Arts Centre, Playhouse
When: Wed 24 – Sat 27 Oct at 8pm
Sat 27 Oct at 4pm
Duration: 1hr no interval
Prices: Full $45 / Groups (8+) $40.50 / Conc $33.75
Student $22 / School Groups $12
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 136 166
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