On Schaubuehne Hamlet at the Dublin Theatre Festival and ‘real Shakespeare’

hamlet3
(Photo credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images)

Last night I attended the Schaubuehne Berlin’s production of Hamlet at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre (forever the Grand Canal!), as directed by its artistic director Thomas Ostermeier. As an exercise in curiosity, this afternoon I decided to look up a number of reviews of the production from its London debut in 2011, as well as its premiere here. The language used in many of them are similar: ‘not for purists’, ‘[a] Shakespearean play — but not as you know it’, ‘Hamlet was never meant to be funny’ (someone’s never read the play so), ‘Ostermeier makes sure nothing about the play is sacred’. Et cetera.

I find this interesting, and a little bit problematic. Of course, we say ‘It’s Shakespeare, but not as you know it’ about several productions that come along (when, in fact, yes you already have seen three productions of the same play using that very same idea). But really, what *is* ‘Shakespeare’? What is ‘real Shakespeare’? It’s an interesting question, and one that those of us working on Shakespearean afterlives think about and interrogate, a lot. Does it necessarily need to be Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen standing on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and in which no one deviates from the script AT ALL to be considered as ‘real Shakespeare’?

By using such language about Ostermeier’s production, and other such adaptations, we run the risk of filing them under Not Real Shakespeare, But Different. As a departure from the norm. As an experiment, after which we go back to the RSC afterwards and talk about how Radical and Shocking and Different that was. Whatever ‘real Shakespeare’ is right now, we certainly need to be a bit more inclusive in our talking about it.

Ostermeier’s Hamlet is visceral, disgusting, dirty, hilarious, and defiant in its execution. Ostermeier writes in his programme note that ‘my hypothesis is that Hamlet can’t hide behind the mask of madness that he puts on at the beginning of the play, that, on the contrary, his madness takes possession of him.’ And so, Lars Eidinger’s Hamlet is so enveloped in his madness from beginning to end: whether it’s squawking at Polonius (Robert Beyer), interrupting his reunion with Rosencrantz (Franz Hartwig) and Guildenstern (Sebastian Schwarz) with a call and response with the audience (or ‘party people’ as he calls us), or switching between showing Ophelia (Jenny Konig, effectively shifting between this role and Gertrude) affection and shoving her on the ground and covering her with earth. This is a Hamlet who’s terrifying and unpredictable in his actions — yet also blisteringly funny, and quite unheroic too.

Hamlet (Lars Eidinger).
Hamlet (Lars Eidinger), resplendent in Hawaiian shirt and muddy face

Eidinger’s performance, and perhaps the production as a whole, also brought to mind a conversation that came up in my class on Irish drama just last week about how we, as audience members, are socially programmed to automatically listen to the most attractive person on stage, regardless if they’re the hero or not (this was a class on Oscar Wilde, naturally). Usually, with Hamlet, there’s a period during productions of the play where he wears Mad Clothes And Doesn’t Care If You Like It Or Not, but by the end of the closet scene he’s clean and wearing ‘acceptable’ clothes again, and towards the end of the play, he is suitably ‘ready’ to engage in the duel with Laertes. None of that here. I believe that this production turns that compulsion of ours on its head: Eidinger writhes in the mud, even eating it several times; strips down to his underwear and covers himself and others in red juice; wears a fat suit and a stringy fake beard; and by the latter end of the evening, he’s sat at the table on-stage, wearing a tacky and dirty Hawaiian shirt and unapologetically wiping his face with dirt. His madness is real, and it’s not pretty or glamorised. You don’t want to look at him, because he’s doing disgusting/unclean/unsavoury things, but here’s the thing — he’s Hamlet. You can’t not pay attention to Hamlet. It’s not just limited to him, though: our first introduction to Horatio (Schwarz) has him stuffing his face with food to the point where it spills all over his face, Ophelia drowns in plastic, and Claudius (Urs Jucker) and Polonius frequently throw cans of lager around the stage with abandon, their spray going everywhere. The mess gets everywhere, and contaminates everyone.

This production, for me, was Shakespearean, or adequately Shakespearean, or whatever you want to call it. Who knows what ‘real Shakespeare’ actually is — I’m not sure if I ever want to know. But Ostermeier captures the spirit of the play and poses questions about it in new and very imaginative ways. And so, surely such work should be the norm, and not the exception, in Shakespearean performance?

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PhD? Oh yes, that is a thing now.

GREETINGS wordpress. I haven’t written much in the last several months (April doesn’t count). I thought it was time I’d log in and actually write an update of some sort. A real one.

I moved from Stratford back to Galway. You already knew that. I finished my master’s with Distinction overall (hoorah!) and graduated in December. The graduation ceremony was magnificent: they had this brilliant musical section who I was ALMOST SURE were going to start playing The Throne Room from A New Hope. Unfortunately, they did not, but I’m pretty sure they played Wagner instead which was pretty cool. After a year and three months of being called ‘Emm-er’ by people, my name was at long last pronounced correctly on the podium to my relief (I apologise for my cynicism regarding the University of Birmingham’s correct pronunciation form). I also didn’t trip up or cause the Great Hall to implode or cause great injury to my friends, fellow graduates, academics, and loved ones. I then spent the evening with friends eating pie and wandering around in Birmingham’s massive humungous German Christmas market (i.e., drinking mulled wine in a charming little shack on what appeared to be New Street). There was also really nice pie and soft furry animals and liking Disney even though they reinforce horrible gender norms.

Leaving your whole life behind for the sake of one guy you met that one time -- that is A Thing. And yet I still love this film.
Leaving your whole life behind for the sake of one guy you met that one time — that is A Thing. And yet I still love this film.

And a few weeks later I had to leave and it was all very sad. But then I moved to Galway so I was less sad.

But here’s another thing: I am now a PhD student. One that started just this month. I was awarded a postgraduate scholarship by the Irish Research Council [UK friends who are not in the know, this is basically the Irish equivalent of the AHRC], and as such, I’m researching Shakespeare in modern Irish theatre 1969-2016 at the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, and assessing the impact of social, political, and cultural influences on performance in the country (taking into account the Northern Irish Troubles, Europeanisation, globalization and the Celtic Tiger, the economic crisis, the tercentenary of the Easter Rising, etc). It’s a big, exciting project, and I’m so delighted to get started. I’m grateful and thankful to actually have funding, knowing all too well how scarce it is from having to self-fund the master’s, as well as knowing many who are going/have gone through their PhDs in a similar fashion. Plus there are LOVELY AND USEFUL ARCHIVES on campus in which I’ll probably get lost in for the next four years. I mean, have you seen the Abbey Digital Archive? This is hardly a bad thing.

But seriously everyone, what am I doing?
but seriously everyone, what am I doing?

So, now I am almost four weeks into starting doctoral research. But it only took about a few days for the whole ‘what the hell am I doing?’ feelings to hit me. I’m not saying it’s all bad and awful: I really love my topic; I have a supervisor who is very supportive and encouraging; I’m in a department that’s inclusive and communal; I’m lucky to have friends, mentors, and colleagues who are there to say ‘don’t worry, it’s totally normal’, ‘that’s what it’s like here’, or ‘please, tidy up your desk’. (Said desk is like a crashed car at the moment. Sorry.) Friends ask me how the PhD is going, and my answer is half ‘I love it/I’m stumbling around in the dark’. Well, we all are to some extent — it’s a feeling that I’ve bonded with other new students over, at least. Maybe the amount of lists I make for myself in terms of TASKS and DON’T FORGET and PRIORITIES and which are STUCK TO MY WALL SO I REMEMBER THAT THEY’RE THERE AND THAT I HAVE TO DO THEM will make at least parts of it more regimented or something. Who knows.

But that’s how things have been so far. I have a conference paper to give in November and a full semester to get through before Christmas. It’s a hodge-podge of flailing hand gestures, ‘wait and see’, and just getting used to things. I think.

So the main nub and thrust of this is: I’m still alive. I’ll try and update this a bit more (I saw so many interesting things over the summer, and meant to write about them but never did), and I’m looking forward to the years ahead. No idea yet as to what they’ll entail, but it’s exciting nonetheless.