Perth Festival review: Dickie Beau, Re-Member Me ·
Studio Underground, February 27 ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·
Near the commencement of Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me the audience is treated to a silhouette of a man seated in a pose reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, accompanied by a synchronised voice-over provided by the actor Ian McKellen. McKellen claims blithely that “Anyone can play Hamlet!” before clarifying that Hamlet is such an open theatrical part that it can be easily re-shaped to be about anyone. We are then rapidly treated to an array of distorted Hamlets, now accompanied by the live lip-synching Beau, leaping about and posing while dressed like an extra from the film version of the Village People’s YMCA.
Complete with Max Headroom-style stutters and reboots and a dazzling day-glo disco projection, the combination is deliberately jarring, garish but also stilted. It’s full of light, colour and joyous action, but it is also — like the best drag performance — slightly distanced, or as Susan Sontag used to say of Andy Warhol, affectively flat and hence “camp”.
Although Re-Member Me focusses on a version of Hamlet performed by the late Ian Charleson (best known for Chariots of Fire) it is, in fact, about the gay subculture of London and West End theatre. Beau playing the late Sir John Gielgud bookends the evening, initially with a recording of Gielgud’s incomparable vocal performance of Hamlet, returning to perform a rather tragic late recording of Gielgud discussing how horrible becoming truly old is since all of one’s friends are dead and one knows that one is next. Gielgud was charged in 1953 for “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes”, while Charleson played Hamlet shortly after it had become known to friends and colleagues that he was dying of AIDS. Both Gielgud and Charleson suffered, albeit in different ways, for their sexuality.
Beau sets up a horizontal space running across the back of the stage, which is bounded by partially see-through plastic curtains, as in a hospital. Above this is hung a wide projection screen onto which four versions of Beau’s head are beamed. For much of the production it is these heads, not the “living” actor below who lip-syncs interviews with Charleson’s friends and colleagues such as McKellen, the former director of the Royal National Theatre, a one-time costume assistant and others. Representing that generation of very English thespians who were taught that correct pronunciation and the Queen’s English was the very essence of their trade, these voice-overs themselves sound vaguely unreal and staged. The equally mannered, exaggerated movements of the mouth and face which Beau adopts when seeming to recite this material increases this sense of unreality and distance.
At a crucial point one of the subjects asks if maybe they are all now creating this romantic myth about how this was one of the best Hamlets ever out of nostalgia, and from their retrospective knowledge that this was to be Charleson’s last major role. Having put this forward, the speaker immediately rejects this, insisting it really was one of those once in a lifetime moments in the theatre. As if to prove this, a recording of a critic from The Times reciting a frankly ludicrous, hagiographic review is then played. One is therefore left with a niggling doubt that, tragic though the tale of Charleson’s death may be, the show is something of an act of smoke and mirrors, an attempt to “re-member” something that maybe never was. It is less a deeply affective myth or piece of stage magic than perhaps a rather brutal, deliberately clunky mixtape of memories and incomplete actorly presences — like the lifeless plastic mannequins which Beau sets up below the disembodied heads.
This is therefore a rather more thoughtful and jarring show than it might at first appear, both homage and debunking all in one, and all the more fascinating for this.
Pictured top: Dickie Beau conjuring the ghosts of Hamlets past. Photo: Sarah Lewis.