Stage Door Review

Something’s Rotten!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

✭✭✭✭

written and directed by Pier Porcheron

SpringWorks PuppetWorks mini-fest, Elvis Alatac, Behind Gallery Stratford, 54 Romeo Street, Stratford

August 19-22, 2021

Hamlet: “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”

What would most interest a 13-year-old boy about Hamlet – Shakespeare’s complex interrogation of how a moral person can live in an immoral world or Shakespeare’s depiction of a series of gruesome deaths? If you chose the latter, you are ready to see Pier Porcheron’s hilariously gory 55-minute-long puppet version of Shakespeare’s play.

Porcheron’s 2013 play Something’s Rotten! (Il y a quelque chose de pourri in the original) is making its English-language debut at SpringWorks’ PuppetWorks mini-fest in Stratford this month as the first stop of a Canada-wide tour. Pier Porcheron, writer, director and puppeteer of Something’s Rotten!, has a Canadian connection because, though he was born in France, his studies of puppetry in Quebec are what convinced him to become a puppeteer. One of his Québécois mentors, Fabrice Tremblay is part of every performance of the show in Canada.

The show begins about a half hour before Porcheron enters his small rickety puppet booth. Clad in black with white greasepaint on his face, Porcheron looks like a wannabe Marcel Marceau. We are told that the “Artist” insists on seating his audience himself and so we wait for about 15 minutes until he is ready to do the seating. As it turns out, every “pod” of 2-4 seats already has the ticket-holder’s name on it so holding us up from sitting is simply a whim of the the Artist. Once the majority of patrons are seated he repeated asks what time it is and shouts at straggling patrons “You’re late!” in an exasperated tone. The Artist as upset diva is off-putting to say the least, especially when his aggressiveness scared off a young girl (too young, however, to have seen the show if her mother had read the age restriction). Many Canadians will view the character simply as rude and may find this a barrier to getting into the play.

Never having seen Porcheron before, I initially assumed that his attitude and that of the Artist were the same and found the whole situation uncomfortable. Eventually, I realized  the Artist was Porcheron’s persona for the show. He was adopting a bouffon style of clown, in which the clown mocks the audience. We are not supposed to like him. Upon refection we may see that a large part of the humour of the show is how the Artist’s conceit and seeming OCD are so completely at odds with the chaos his performance as puppeteer unleashes.

Porcheron’s transition from bouffon to more traditional clown occurs when the Artist discovers, before entering his booth, that his fly is open. The extraordinary lengths he goes to to fix this simple wardrobe malfunction already show us that Porcheron is inviting us to mock the clown after having been mocked by him even though as the Artist he still maintains his disdainful attitude.

Once he enters his booth he opens the perilously hung curtains to reveal his cast of characters. Porcheron is a master of the type of puppetry known as object manipulation. Torontonians will be familiar with this style of puppetry through the work of Puppetmongers Ann Powell and David Powell, whose classic work in this genre is Brick Bros. Circus (1978) in which all the circus performers are played by actual bricks.

In Something’s Rotten! Porcheron introduces us to his cast one by one. Hamlet is played by a barbecue fork. Gertrude is a red teakettle with black polka dots. Claudius is a turkey baster. Ophelia is a red fabric rose. Polonius, whom Porcheron portrays as a drunk, is a plastic wine bottle filled with wine. And Laertes is a pizza cutter.

The action begins immediately with Hamlet’s confrontation with the Ghost of his father. Since Porcheron’s Artist had not previously introduced the character, he has the Ghost tell Hamlet that he is appearing to him in the form of a skein of wool. The haste the Ghost feels to tell his tale is reinforced in Porcheron’s version by the Ghost’s decrepitude.

Quoting the text Porcheron’s Ghost speaks of the poison that Claudius poured poison in his ear as he slept “That swift as quicksilver it courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body”. But as the Ghost speaks Porcheron teases out red yarn from inside the Ghost’s grey wool body and it begins to unravel so that the Ghost’s time appears limited by how long he can keep speaking as more and more of his guts spill out.

This encounter sets the tone for all that follows. Porcheron skims through the play stopping at some of its key moments but passing others by. The prime criterion for inclusion seems to be how violent the scene is. Thus we move jump over the play-within-a-play directly to the “closet scene” where Polonius is hiding behind the arras to hear what Hamlet has planned. When Hamlet spots Polonius he becomes so angry he changes from a barbecue fork into a power drill. This leads to Polonius’ drawn-out death scene, the most hilarious scene in the play, which is so funny because it is so inventive in using such simple means to suggest such a graphically gruesome death. With Porcheron Polonius’ death is the raison d’être of the scene, not just a distraction from Hamlet’s conversation with Gertrude.

Porcheron may delete most of the text but he also adds scenes not in Shakespeare such as Claudius laboriously poisoning the blade of Laertes’ foil. In a production focussed on action rather than reflection, Porcheron skips all of Hamlet’s monologues except for “To be or not to be”, but even that speech turns bloody when the Artist accidentally skewers his nose on Hamlet’s barbecue fork.

Given Porcheron’s treatment of the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father and of Polonius, the final duel becomes a major gore-fest. Laertes becomes so angry at Hamlet for killing his father and driving Ophelia mad, that he changes from a pizza cutter into a power metal cutter and his battle with Hamlet-the-fork literally leads to sparks flying.

Porcheron does not let Gertrude salute Hamlet with the simple “The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet” before she drinks the poisoned cup. Rather, he gives her a long, painfully comic speech in which she is so drunk she hardly knows what she is saying concluding with something about “all of us living as brothers and sisters in a yellow submarine”. Gertrude’s death in turn so enrages Hamlet that he goes beyond transforming into a power drill but becomes a meat cleaver when he goes after Claudius.

As an example of object manipulation, Porcheron moves the genre forward by allowing an object representing a character to transform into another object to signify its change in emotion. Porcheron also expands the role of object manipulator by allowing himself periodically to embody physically the object he is voicing as he does with Ophelia, Polonius and Gertrude.

As an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Something Rotten! is a wonderfully gleeful mix of Theatre of the Absurd and Grand Guignol. Indeed, Porcheron’s presentation emphasizes the aspects of the absurd and of grotesque horror that are actually part of Shakespeare’s play. Layered on top of this is Porcheron’s satire of avant-garde theatre. The Great Artist, i.e. the persona Porcheron has created, gives us his production of the greatest play by the world’s greatest playwright. It’s clear the Artist has no idea of the philosophical import of the play beyond the notion that “Everyone dies at the end”. By the end the meticulous Artist, so worried about precision and punctuality before the play, is a total shambles covered in flour, fake blood and fake poison.

Meanwhile, as if to highlight the self-obsessed craziness of the Artist and his work, Porcheron has his mentor Fabrice Tremblay sit to the audience right of the puppet booth.Tremblay is nominally in charge of setting scenes through playing music on a boombox in his lap. In fact, his role is to sit in absolute impassivity, even when accidentally splashed with blood and poison. Tremblay’s imperturbable calm, seemingly resigned to boredom, makes the Artist’s increasingly maniacal behaviour all the more comic.

Porcheron’s uproarious take on Hamlet is something no theatre lover, and especially no one interested in puppetry, will want to miss. Luckily, Porcheron’s tour will take him to Montreal, Trois Rivières, BC and Calgary over the coming year. So catch this embodiment of theatrical madness if you can.

For ages 12+. (Parents, please heed this age restriction!)

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Pier Porcheron in Something’s Rotten!; Pier Porcheron with Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia.

For tickets visit www.springworksfestival.ca.

For more information about Pier Porcheron visit elvisalatac.fr.