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.
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?