An overweight Hamlet, in pink Hawaiian shirt and braces, stands at the corner of a stage filled with dirt, looking out at the audience. He’s crying, but as he runs his hand down over his face the tears stop. The hand moves over the face again, and he’s weeping once more – ‘These indeed seem, for they are actions that a man might play’.
In the course of the evening’s performance (2 hr, 30 min, no interval), the company from Berlin play many such tricks on the audience, causing much nervous laughter. When Hamlet shares with Horatio his plan for the Mousetrap, the house lights come up for the line about ‘guilty creatures sitting at a play’, asking us to reflect upon our own malefactions. Even Hamlet’s gut is shown to be nothing more than a fat suit when he strips off to perform the role of Player Queen in a blonde wig and fishnets, keeping the audience constantly off-balance. An audible gasp went up when the Player Queen/Hamlet pulled down the Player King/Horatio’s black thong for oral sex, and it was clear that the cast revelled in such shock tactics.
For all that, this was a production that offered more than gimmicky iconoclasm, as Ostermeier seems to have translated Shakespeare not simply into German, but into a postmodern vernacular. A versatile and highly mobile set consisted of a large expanse of dirt, a raised platform with banqueting table and party paraphernalia on runners, and a curtain of metal chains that also doubled as a projection screen for audio-visuals. The opening scene saw Old Hamlet interred with much pratfalls, while mourners huddled under black umbrellas as ‘rain’ was sprayed from a garden hose. Dirt dominated, as characters rolled around in it, threw it and ate it. This brought to mind the Belarus Free Theatre’s use of soil in King Lear, and particularly evocative was Hamlet’s piling of dirt in his mother’s lap during the Closet scene.
The open-plan set lent a fluidity to scene changes, and this was matched with excellent doubling. While not necessarily original, in execution the pairing of Old Hamlet and Claudius (Urs Jucker), Gertrude and Ophelia (Jenny König), kept Hamlet’s tangled relationships constantly on display; a mother’s gentle kiss evokes Hamlet and Ophelia’s passionate embrace. The fluid nature of character even seems to have bled into Hamlet himself (the only character not to be doubled), whose expletive-ridden antic disposition and violent mood swings indicated an unbalanced mind, akin to the early modern humoral body with an excess of black bile (melancholia). The actor, Lars Eidinger, built up an easy rapport with the audience during the evening, exchanging banter so familiarly that you forgot the iconic role he was playing. On the news that he is being shipped to England, the exclamation ‘Piccadilly Circus’ drew laughter. Yet at any moment the rug could be pulled from under our feet; the Prayer scene consisted of a fantasy killing of Claudius, with plastic sheeting and red juice, before Hamlet turned on the audience screaming ‘Is this what you want?’.
Shakespeare’s text does not immediately suggest to everyone the need for live camera feeds, Battles soundtrack, fat suits, and silver glitter, but each element came together to eloquently express Hamlet’s central dilemma. Particularly impressive was the integration of audio-visuals from a hand-held camera projected onto the swaying backdrop of chains; for me this brought together Almereyda’s Hamlet’s obsession with recording equipment and the possibility of recording hidden depths in close-up, explored in Edward II at the National, London 2013. It was on the big screen that we witnessed Ophelia’s demise, as she struggled to breathe wrapped in plastic. The final orgy of death was similarly steeped in copious fake blood, with strobe lighting. This is not a conservative Hamlet, but who said Shakespeare was conservative?
Hamlet as a play is hard enough to summarize; this production was so rich in detail, precise in execution, and visceral in staging as to make any attempt at comprehensiveness futile. At times, I got the sense that comprehension is not necessarily Schaubühne’s main concern. This is a Hamlet you don’t watch, you experience.
Photo credits: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland