What makes a theatre company pull up stumps and relocate to another city? It’s a tough thing to do, logistically as much as artistically, especially when there’s no guarantee your work will be received with the same enthusiasm in your new home. But when we sat down to chat with director and designer Stephen Mitchell Wright, who last year moved his experimental theatre company the Danger Ensemble from Brisbane to Melbourne, we quickly learned that risk was central to the appeal.
“The name of the Danger Ensemble came about, not because we wanted to make overtly risky work, but because we wanted to always feel like we were in danger of failing,” he explains over coffee in a clattering café in the middle of the CBD. “I didn’t want to get to a place where we were making choices that we understood, before we’d already made them.” The move can therefore be read as a physical extension of their artistic aims, of “always wanting to be in new territory.”
The first show in their new digs was The Hamlet Apocalypse, an alarming and chaotic countdown to the end of time. Performed by a troupe of actors stuck in a performance of Hamlet, it refracted Shakespeare’s play through the prism of contemporary doom culture. It was electric and strange and difficult to categorise. “That’s important to us, that we don’t pre-empt or prescribe what an audience is going to feel coming to our shows.” The important thing is to shake audiences up. “I don’t want people to feel safe, or familiar, in our space.”
Let Men Tremble is their newest production, opening at Theatre Works this month. It is a reaction to Nathanial Hawthorn’s 1850 historical novel The Scarlet Letter, about the ritual public shaming of Hester Prynne, who has had a child out of wedlock, but refuses to name her lover. On the surface it looks like a tricky work to unpack in 2019. But again, this is part of the appeal.
“Our philosophy is reactionary; we like to have something to push against, or work with or have a conversation with. And The Scarlet Letter is about a woman who stays silent for a culture, for a man. It’s about literally branding somebody with your moral code.” Given this company’s fearless aesthetic, and their rigorous commitment to experimental forms, it’s likely to prove another dangerous night in the theatre.
Let Men Tremble is at Theatre Works from August 14 to 25.