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The Hamlet Apocalypse (Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane)

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As the end becomes nigh, seven actors rush to complete a performance of Hamlet before everything goes dark. The Danger Ensemble’s The Hamlet Apocalypse seems like a simple concept but this subtle, densely layered play-within-a-play (and, briefly, play-within-a-play-within-a-play) juxtaposes a dystopic future against one of history’s most enduring works of theatre.

The mood is set from the moment we enter: harsh white light blears into the audience and doomsday faves, A Silver Mt Zion play while seats fill. Nothing quite says “game over, man” like Canadian post-rock.

The Danger Ensemble’s bold oeuvre during the last decade has purportedly seen it spill more than 1000 litres of stage blood (sand some of it, at least once, on me). But The Hamlet Apocalypse itself is restrained and sparse. Steven Mitchell Wright’s set – framed in plastic sheeting.. – allows Ben Hughes’ lighting and Dane Alexander’s sound design to imply a gargantuan sense of menace and discord. A low, rumbling soundscape hulks in the world beyond. The actors have at their disposal a couple of ladders, a smattering of IKEA furniture, and plenty of ash and dust. Blood is spilled, but this time – in a very clever bit of staging – the role is played by red wine.

The ash is important, too. As the players count down to the final fireworks – in an unnerving subversion of New Year’s Eve revelry – their desperation increases. Their helplessness as the world careens to an inevitable end is affecting; for these characters, staging Hamlet is a way to wrestle back agency. The ash of a dying world can become a meaningful prop – a costume piece, a flourish, a posy, or a cremated king.

I saw the first run of this show at La Boite in 2011, and many of its fierce moments have stayed with me . But The Hamlet Apocalypse is a living beast, with the actors – playing themselves – given freedom to interpret both Hamlet and the apocalypse with sincerity. Thomas Hutchins as Claudius has the presence and compelling voice of a cult leader; Caroline Dunphy is a composed, dignified Gertrude; Chris Beckey haunts the stage with grief as the Ghost of King Hamlet; and Peta Ward brings moments of defiant joy and humour as “two dudes”, Rosencrantz and Laertes.

There’s a lot going on at any one time, but director Steven Mitchel Wright pulls it together through a dextrous sense of collective movement. In a memorable scene, Thomas’s insistent stage direction of a dinner scene within Hamlet degenerates into ecstatic, uncanny mock-feasting as the players forget Shakespeare to recall the favourite foods they’ll never taste again. This fever-pitch moment coagulates back into tense royal drama and the show goes on. It’s wild.

“Time be thine,” says Claudius to Laertes; “spend it at thy will” – but time is the antagonist in The Hamlet Apocalypse. The furore and passion of Hamlet allows the players to filter their grief, fear, regret, panic, love – which spill out, now and then, through the fourth wall – through the lens of characters hundreds of years in development. Performing Shakespeare into the impending void also reads as a very fitting fuck-you to the apocalypse itself.

This is one of those rare plays that both devastates and uplifts, and reminds us there’s something in live theatre that can’t be recreated elsewhere. As Hamlet, their costumes, and the world outside begin to come apart, we see more and more of the players’ stage-selves through the cracks. Their vulnerability underpins the raw humanity that draws us back, time and again, to Shakespeare. It’s the same element that impels us to keep making art into the future – to rage against the dying of the light.

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The Hamlet Apocalypse runs at the Judith Wright Centre until August 19. Main image by Morgan Roberts

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