HAMLET丨TOILET Brings The Potty Humor — Review
It’s that time of year again, folks. New York City’s beloved Under the Radar festival, which we almost lost, is back. For the next few weeks, the city is alive with international theatre artists showcasing their most alternative, genre-defying work. The Japan Society’s presentation of HAMLET丨TOILET is a fine example of the kind of bonkers, head-scratching but thought-provoking work you might expect to find in Under the Radar’s programming.
Written and directed by Yu Murai, artistic director of Kaimaku Pennant Race (KPR), a Tokyo-based theatre company known for bringing its gonzo, movement-based ethos to classic texts, HAMLET丨TOILET takes the basic structure of Shakespeare’s tragedy about an indecisive prince and centers it in, you guessed it, the bathroom. What exactly does that mean? Well, the material doesn’t make it very easy to parse, but the three actors and members of KPR (Takuro Takasaki, G.K. Masayuki, and Yuki Matsuo) engage with the nonsensical material with gusto. On a nearly bare set, with just three stall-like structures (plus a few surprises) and a back wall for videos (video design by Takashi Kawasaki), they are three clowns clad in KPR’s signature white full-body singlets, playing multiple roles to tell the story of the prince who, in this case, suffers from well, let’s just say, intestinal issues, while he tries to avenge his father, who has just been murdered by his own brother, Claudius. Masayuki, who plays the fratricidal brother and others, is the standout performer. He uses every muscle in his body to find the humor in every moment of this silly work. A highlight of the production is his first appearance as Ophelia, wearing a wig made of several toilet paper rolls.
Among all the potty humor and scatology, which grows tiresome within the piece’s first few minutes, Murai is trying to connect Hamlet’s one-man quest for revenge with the solitude one has in the bathroom. In a director’s note, which is echoed in the performance itself, he writes:
Locked in the bathroom, I was frightened by the thundering sound of the door.
Do not get in the way.
Grumblingly excreting words, scribbling them on the wall, looking to the right, to the left, to the back, to the front, I realized that I was alone at the end, after being swayed by myself.
—This small room is the whole world—.
Alone on the toilet, totally private, shielded from the outside world, Murai sees this as a place of infinite time, where you can contemplate life and its meaning. In a more conventional Hamlet, the main character does just that throughout the play. In Murai’s, he does it in the bathroom.
Performed in Japanese with English supertitles, I (an audience member who doesn’t speak Japanese) often had to make the choice between watching the performance on stage and reading the screens for context. However, because these performers are adept at using their bodies to tell the story, I could still follow the piece without reading and laugh at the antics of the three men on stage, i.e. the piece’s opening image: Matsuo on the toilet, the toilet being Takasaki and Masayuki.
This isn’t KPR’s first foray into mixing its one-of-a-kind approach to theatre-making with Shakespeare. In fact, these artists have brought the toilet to Shakespeare before, too. In 2009, KPR presented Romeo & Toilet, which featured a toilet made of 10,000 toilet paper rolls, at the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival. Ten years later, in 2019, its Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth turned the Japan Society’s stage into a boxing ring, with audience members seated on stage outside the ring.
Though its themes and meanings may not present themselves clearly, its always exciting to experience theatre in an entirely new way.
HAMLET丨TOILET runs through Saturday, January 13 at the Japan Society.