Well, that was unexpected. Really.
I think I was anticipating something sort of esoteric and alien. Something I might feel a bit detached from, a bit inadequate in the face of.
But not this.
I was pretty confident I could keep up with whatever he was going to make of Hamlet, even though I was a bit worried I’d just be gawping at some chap in black velvet bloomers, standing centre stage and lip-synching all of Hamlet’s lines in a mash up of many many (many) actors’ voices.
Which would be (or not be) whatever –
But not this.
In fact, if you check out Dickie Beau, the ‘he’ alluded to above, on Imdb or some such, you’ll see that he’s about to appear as Kenny Everett in Bohemian Rhapsody; and if you’re old enough, you’ll smirk.
And if you call up his name on DuckDuckGo (because Google sucks) the first thing you’ll read is the self-description on his Twitter account: Shape-shifter/Shirt-lifter. Actor/Artist.
And that would give you some idea of the range of this show.
There’s the skill. The accuracy of the lip-synching. That’s one thing.
There’s the cleverness of the juxtaposition of edits and ideas – Darth Vader’s unexpected vocal is just the beginning! And that’s another thing.
There’s the humour – which the gorgeously camp disco dancing and inspired ‘Wittenberg University’ singlet he’s wearing, only hint at.
And there are the cameos: Ian McKellen, John Gielgud, Richard Eyre and Sean Mathias – all frontline theatrical royalty – but also Stephen Ashby, a former dresser at the National Theatre.
And Dickie Beau is all of these, and more.
I can’t decide whether this is a conjuring, a haunting, a possession, or an animation.
But it isn’t impersonation, it isn’t that sort of stage bio-pic attempt at clinical re-creation. This is quite different. This is the voice of an actual person re-animated, inhabited, as it were. Fleshed out with movement that is the result of an actor’s decision, an actor’s process.
Sometimes the embodiment is live or viewed as silhouette; sometimes it’s pre-recorded and projected above the main performance area – as in the section one might call the (fabulous) ‘Four Faces of Dickie Beau’ where Mr Beau appears as (reading from right to left) Mathias, McKellan, Eyre and a fan who’s seen something like 96 Hamlets (‘you’re our 97th!) respectively.
And it’s sharp, and inventive, and funny, funny, funny.
And then the shift.
In fact the mood of the piece traces the trajectory of its creation really. Initially, it seems, this was to be a piece that would showcase the performer’s skill and wit, as well as his fascination with, and ideas about, acting and performance.
Then Beau’s research led him to Daniel Day Lewis’ performance and the night that actor left the stage – never to return again. As stories go, if that were all, it would still be the stuff of theatrical legend.
Understudy Jeremy Northam took over for a time, but his to be was not to be for long. The silver-voiced Ian Charleson (whom you may remember, head back running to glory as Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire) replaced them both. It was to be his last unrecorded performance. He was dying, and knew himself to be dying of AIDS.
And suddenly every comment about memory and its fragility, about remembering and our efforts to hold those whom we love beyond death, about the ‘insubstantial pageant’ that is theatre, the actors’performances that play now only in the mind’s eye is reheard. A past made present.
We’ve snickered at an unguarded, slightly disingenuous, blushing at his own indulgence John Gielgud in an 80s (ish) interview admitting a sense of his own lack of action in a life that has seen two world wars and battles unnumbered in which he has played no part. Beau is wickedly precise in this sequence. Now we see Gielgud again, close to death, confined to a wheelchair and still speaking of inadequacy; but more deeply, with profound, unadorned honesty; and frail, so frail.
‘Remember me’, pleads the ghost in Hamlet. So this is a memorial. Not just to Ian Charleson but to actors and presences that aren’t anymore. And it’s extraordinary.
And my memory too, is peopled.
If ‘every theatre review is really a kind of obituary’, as Dickie Beau believes, let this one record the awe I felt and my desire to witness the piece again.
At Arts Centre, Melbourne until Sunday, October 21
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