Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth
produced by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
directed by Kevin Confoy

Tom Stoppard has a talent for being clever and intellectual at once. In Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, he’s so clever and intellectual that he leaves us behind. The plays are so abstruse that they’re puzzling.
Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth are companion plays, each a relatively short piece running about an hour. They show us a population who speak Dogg, a language that uses the same words as English but with meanings unrelated to the meanings we assign to them.

Presented first, Dogg’s Hamlet is concerned with Dogg-speaking people producing Hamlet, and we see many of the scenes from Shakespeare. Much is made of their building a wall and the words they use to build it. The play itself is delivered in familiar Shakespearean English (Stoppard had referred to Hamlet in that earlier, more famous, play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). A delivery man enters; he speaks normal English, and is unintelligible to the others.

Most characters in Cahoot’s Macbeth speak English, and in this play he’s added a discussion of censorship. The characters (not the characters in Dogg’s Hamlet) are presenting a private production of Macbeth (and we see many of those scenes as well). A pair of government agents intrude to stop that subversive activity, theater (“I could nick you just for acting,” the leader says.). Thus far, the play is clear. Finally that delivery man speaking Dogg from the earlier play enters, and we’re back in the world of heady word-play.

It’s all enormously baffling. Stoppard is discussing the nature of language, the nature of art, censorship… The language-rich building of the wall comes directly from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work about the nature of words.

The plays have been mounted by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble. The production is rich with skill even as it fails to make the plays totally accessible. Kevin Confoy’s direction is rigorous and precise. He never allows the pace either to flag or to rush. His picturization is clear. Actors enter from the audience when they should and the whole fiction has a real sense of taking place in the theater.

The actors are so adroit that each seems to have been perfectly cast. Jason O’Connell gives a particularly fine performance as the lead Government Inspector who crashes Macbeth. Imposing and moving as the moment demands, he has an expressive physical life reflecting a clear analysis.

But the two plays, particularly the first, need humor to function and, try as it might, the show fails to get laughs. It has proper timing and flow, but nonetheless too serious a tone. It fails to make a comic connection with the audience. And so there’s a mechanism missing that would have helped us to connect with the scripts.

Be all that as it may, The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is a company to attend to; its talent is undeniable. They’ve chosen a difficult task, and are to be credited for it.

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