Lip-sync maestro Dickie Beau calls on some famous friends in this exploration of an actor's life and the transience of theatre for Melbourne Festival
Very early in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet promises to remember his father “whiles memory holds a seat in this distracted globe”. Of course, he straight forgets this most elemental of tasks and needs the ghost to return “to whet thy almost blunted purpose”. Even a father most wrongly murdered is fodder for forgetting. Imagine what chance an actor has to cement their legacy in the firmament of fame, not least in a society intent on burning through its icons like yesterday’s papers. The fading actor is a particularly poignant image, as romantic and elegiac as the Dane himself, and it’s brought into glorious focus by UK performer and “drag fabulist” Dickie Beau.
Re-Member Me is at once a tribute to and excavation of the actors who have played Hamlet, the greatest non-actor ever written for the stage. It opens with Richard Griffiths’ quote from Withnail and I, his lament that “it is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself, ‘I will never play the Dane’”. This is no less profound for being pathetic; for any actor the role of Hamlet can seem the pinnacle of achievement, and a failure to reach it becomes the ultimate symbol of loss and decay.
The genius of this piece is the way its form so eloquently illuminates its theme. Beau is, after all, a drag fabulist, and drag queens lip sync; here he lip syncs not so much for his life as for the lives of Hamlets past. Thus we get recordings of great actors performing the role – among them Gielgud, McKellen, Burton and Branagh – as well as extraordinary interviews with actors, directors and even dressers who’ve worked on the play; all out of the mouth, and refracted through the persona, of Beau himself. If all acting is a kind of ventriloquism, then this is a multiverse of voices, layered and mixed and looping.
A scattergun approach to pop cultural references – from Michael Douglas’s fruity director in the film of A Chorus Line to Barbra Streisand’s equally fruity turn in Yentl – disguises Beau’s serious intent, at least for a while. Gossipy material from Daniel Day-Lewis’s infamously aborted turn as Hamlet leads to a performance that wasn’t recorded and can’t be looped into the mix. Ian Charleson took over the role in that production, to limited but passionate acclaim. It’s here that Beau turns to Richard Eyre, who directed it, and Ian McKellen, who saw it and could speak of its impact. It’s a tale of woe, of the devastating impact of AIDS on a man’s body, of the devastating impact of AIDS on the theatrical world. But it’s also a tribute to the lasting affect a performance can have on an audience, the way an actor’s voice can echo down the ages.
The technical aspects of the performance are highly sophisticated, with a reliance on complex multimedia and a necessary level of audiovisual precision. But the overall effect is delightfully analogue. Beau spends large amounts of stage time moving the limbs of mannequins about, arranging body parts for silent tableaux. This is where the title comes in: that little hyphen between re and member functions as an opposition to dismemberment; this is a way of piecing together a life from lost and half-recalled fragments, of animating the inanimate. A craft project Ophelia would understand.
To remember is in some ways to bring back to life. Dickie Beau is both conjuror and conjured, ventriloquist and puppet, in this wondrous and endlessly moving reanimation; he brings the partly-obscured performance of Ian Charleson’s Hamlet back from the dead, as well as Gielgud’s and Burton’s and Branagh’s and McKellen’s. But he also brings back the agonising journey the gay community took through AIDS, and all that can’t be recomposed. He makes it feel achingly beautiful – to quote a different play – that “all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death”. If we can’t all be Hamlets, then we’ll surely all be Yoricks; and all of us food for worms.