Shakespeare in gloves - boxing, of course

The Dane with the mother fixation has come a long way from Elsinore. Now a New York theatre group is pitting Hamlet against his enemies in the boxing ring. Sarah Jones discovers why
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The Independent Culture

Hamlet and Laertes slugging it out in a boxing ring: the work of a literary sports fanatic or the radical contender in this year's Bath Shakespeare Festival? Both, actually, although the director of A Thousand Natural Shocks would doubtless prefer to employ the word "athlete" than the phrase "sports fanatic".

The Hamlet spin-off was born in a New York coffee shop in late 2004, at a meeting of a group of politically inclined physical theatre graduates with a burning passion "to do something with the Dane". It is, as you might infer, about as far from "naturalistic" theatre as you can get. This is theatre as rock concert, which is, says Rachel Chavkin, artistic director and co-founder of the nascent Theatre of the Emerging American Movement (also known as the TEAM), exactly the point.

"I've always liked the idea of very athletic, visual theatre," says Chavkin, who officially set up the TEAM in 2003 with the like-minded Jessica Almasy, Jill Frutkin, Brian Hastert, Stephanie Douglas, and Kristen Sieh. Realising that "you can't get Robert Wilson on a shoe-string budget" - referring to the influential American experimental theatre director - the TEAM's distinctive stylesprouted from a sense that "the great thing for an audience is watching something physically extraordinary that they couldn't do themselves".

Barring his staging of one "cult" student production in 2001, Chavkin's attempts to fuse the desired athleticism with theatre first saw light of day with the troupe's 2003 show Faster. For the duration of the hour-long performance, the lead actress occupied herself running on a treadmill. It's fair to say that the concept of "smelling the sweat of the production" was thus gratifyingly realised.

But while most graduate theatre companies largely tend to "crash and burn", as Chavkin neatly puts it, the TEAM is riding what seems to be an ever- increasing wave of critical acclaim, occasioned largely by their award-winning debut at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Funded by "kind donations, my savings account and bail-out money from the cast's parents," the TEAM created A Thousand Natural Shocks and the Fringe First-winning Get Up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope). A one-woman show about a woman who swallows her television set and subsequently digests life through it, it caught the eye of a trainee producer, Shelley Hastings, at the Battersea Arts Centre, and was given an immediate transfer to the London house for a "best of Edinburgh" season.

But while Get Up! Start Over! proved to be a more mainstream success, not everyone really "got" the wildly physical intellectualising of Shocks. "To be honest, I was a bit bamboozled by that one," admits Hastings, laughing. "It was very exciting, but it was on very early in the morning. I came out thinking, 'What the hell was that?'"

It hasn't, however, stopped her bringing the TEAM back this month to workshop their latest production, Particularly in the Heartland, about American political sensibility away from the liberal fringes, which the company hopes to stage back in Edinburgh this summer. "They're definitely one to watch," says Hastings, concurring, at least on that point, with Philip Parr, director of the Bath Shakespeare Festival.

And so to the West Country. The compelling Shocks takes its title from Hamlet's final soliloquy, "To be, or not to be", in which he refers to "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to".

With their youth ethos, the TEAM appropriates a quartet of Shakespeare's young characters, Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia and Horatio - respectively a directionless nihilist, a slick media-controlling politician, a burgeoning anarchist and an American everyman - and places them in a contemporary world that is politically apathetic, ostensibly Danish and yet still recognisably American.

With Hamlet's father dead at the outset, the characters attempt to come to terms with the breakdown of the "old order" through boxing, clowning and a persistent rock concert-style reprisal of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire", which seems to be an anthem for a confused, lost and angry American youth.

"We realised very early on that our writing would not fit with Shakespeare's," says Chavkin of the repeatedly-reworked text by the four cast members, literally a "TEAM" effort. The only non-original writing in the play that remains intact is a chunk of promotional text taken from a 1970s Danish Tourist Board broc-hure, hijacked as a speech for Kristen Sieh's ever more radicalised Ophelia.

It's not easy being young, American and political in a country where the main satirical news show aimed at younger viewers, The Daily Show, has "given up commenting on the news because the news itself is increasingly ridiculous", as Chavkin puts it.

"We're getting to a place of apathy in America now, with things going from bad to worse, to an absurdist degree. New Yorkers are generally very upset at where the country is going, but we don't know how to make things happen. Protests don't get news coverage, so it is easy to think, 'What's the point?'"

The TEAM's response to this lack of interest is to try to push Shakespeare's characters to the limits. Sieh's Ophelia chooses, in her madness, not to focus on important political changes, but instead on consumer-ism, looking pretty and trying to make people feel happy. "It's very easy for an American to do that. We're taught by our president to pay no attention to 'the man behind the curtain'. It's the equivalent of Shakespeare's Ophelia turning everything into flowers," says Chavkin.

"It's not blanket political theatre. We make work that's funny, bizarre, and full of pop culture and smart, complicated insights into things that no-one wants to talk about. We want to balance cynicism with the desire to believe that change is possible.

"Ultimately, serious theatre that looks serious is deadly. It's joyful to watch the energy of Hamlet and Laertes boxing on stage. Right from the beginning, we knew we really wanted that fight. Jessica and Brian, playing Hamlet and Laertes, got up at 6am for three months to train."

It's a rare thing to find a graduate theatre company that has the direction, drive and, perhaps paradoxically, the maturity of the TEAM. What they so desperately want now is to set up a New York home, "to strike up a long-term conversation with an audience".

"We haven't just started this company to make plays," insists Chavkin. "We really have an idea of what theatre should look like. The success of Edinburgh has helped set us apart, certainly, but we're all incredibly dogmatic. So much devised work is structurally sloppy, and people seem receptive to the tightness of our writing."

But what happens five years further down the line when the "exuberant young voice of contemporary America" becomes the status quo?

"That is the question," reflects Chavkin, with no apparent hint of irony. But whatever the next five years hold, it's unlikely any of these actors will be struggling to pay the rent for much longer.

A Thousand Natural Shocks, Bath Shakespeare Festival (01225 448844), 9-12 March; public workshop of Particularly in the Heartland, Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020 7223 2223), 21-22 March