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

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(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?

And there’s one for everyone in the audience(s): Macbeth and the ordinary spectator

Programme cover for Macbeth, Swan Theatre, 1999.

It’s the end of May and I’m almost a month into researching my masters dissertation. I’m writing on Greg Doran’s 1999 production of Macbeth at the Swan Theatre, and looking at it through two very distinct prisms: one is concerned with how the participants (actors, directors, etc) write, think, and remember it, and the other deals with different groups of audiences — critics, academics who either review it for publication or try to position it into the performance history canon, and lay audience members. This project germinated out of the fact that so many from the first set have written and/or talked about it so much — Harriet Walter wrote a short book about it in the Actors on Shakespeare series; Antony Sher has written extensively about it in Players of Shakespeare and in his very good autobiography, Beside Myself; and Greg Doran has given several interviews in print and elsewhere. To that end, I’ve become interested in how an actor or director’s memory works differently from someone who may not be intimately involved with the production at all — Peter Brook writes in The Empty Space about how, for the general spectator, memories of performance almost become images, like ‘silhouettes’, which for me describes my own way of remembering shows that I’ve seen in the past. They become narrowed down to one solitary image that stands out from the rest. I’ve mentioned to people that the one image that remains from seeing Propeller’s Richard III is the sight of Richard Clothier’s Gloucester standing alone onstage after becoming king, a crown on the stool near him. He begins to laugh — it’s a horrible, high, cold laugh — and the lights cut to blackout. It’s now the interval. Other shows have worked the same: it’s Cillian Murphy sporting a pair of homemade wings and hanging over scaffolding with a microphone in his hand, disco lights reflecting off his body, at the end of Misterman; Pippa Nixon serenading the audience (and Alex Waldmann) with a Wye Oak song while balloons flood the stage in King John; and more recently, the party that forms the end of As You Like It, as the revellers bounce around the stage singing and dancing. They’re completely wet but they’re deliriously happy, and every single time I watch it, their euphoria rubs off on me too (I will review it soon, promise).

This leads me onto the type of literature that I’ve been looking at lately. A fantastic introduction to audience studies is probably Helen Freshwater’s Theatre & Audience, which argues for the normal audience member’s inclusion in performance research. Freshwater makes a very valid point that relying on critics in order to ascertain the reaction to a particular show has its limitations. This is particularly glaring where Shakespearean performance is concerned, as critics come to a show with certain preconceptions and previous productions in mind (as much as I really don’t like Jonathan Slinger’s Hamlet, one gets tired of critics referencing the ‘advice to the Players’ when talking about his performance: see here and here). This is something that I will need to be conscious of when talking about those who were paid to come and watch Macbeth, whether to sell it to the public, discourage people from seeing it, or (if they were reviewing it for an academic publication) to generally discuss its successes and failures in an attempt to place it in dialogue with previous or concurrent productions of the same play. Or even similar or wildly different ones at that.

So what I want to figure out is what do ordinary audience members remember from this production (urgh, I hate using the word ‘ordinary’). What are the lasting images? If not, what are the sounds, the moments, the words that stick out in the memory? Do they, too, place this Macbeth in dialogue with the likes of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 production or other productions that they have seen? Do they compare Sher and Walter to other Macbeths and Lady Macbeths that they have seen, or measure them up by some general cultural consensus that determines what they ‘should’ be? (Obviously owing to her firsthand experience, Walter is especially good on Lady Macbeth’s cultural legacy: see Actors on Shakespeare.) Whether these memories are big or small, verbose or concise, they are welcome, and fascinating in any way. So, naturally, please get in touch. And generally, suggestions/ideas/comments are always welcome.

[P.S. I’m giving a paper on ‘Reading Shakespeare: Macbeth at the RSC and the actor’s account’ at this year’s BritGrad conference. Do come along if you’re interested in hearing yours truly yammer on about Sher and Walter for twenty minutes flat. I promise it will be interesting. Somewhat.]

Days of Whine in Doses*, in which Emer experiments with MS Paint

*I just really liked the rhyme and pun. I couldn’t think of anything else more positive.

Greetings from the second-last-week-of-Masters-classes-sweet-jesus. To add my voice to the masses, I can’t believe how fast it’s gone by. It’s a Tuesday evening in Stratford and the most exciting thing that’s happened to me today was finishing a first draft of an essay due next week, ordering a lasagne in the Garrick Inn, and realising that I HAVE MS PAINT ON MY LAPTOP, and HEY, WHY DON’T I USE IT ON MY BLOG.

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I have such epiphanies sometimes, you know.

But anyway.

1. I am 23 on the 27th of this month. I am almost two years off living for a quarter of a century. Which is kinda cool — I never got why people got so wound up about not being asked for ID once they got past a certain age. I’m also waiting for the whole panicking-about-what-I’m-supposed-to-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life thing to kick in, but before then, there are essays. And dissertations. And BritGrad (come to BritGrad! Ah, you will. Please?). And stuff. More present things. I had a performance exam last Sunday, so at least there’s potential for a ‘Will perform two select monologues from the Shakespeare canon for money’ cardboard sign. As well as the pointless Shakespearean performance history trivia that has wormed itself into my brain over the past few years. I can tell you when the Swan Theatre opened or when Kathryn Hunter played Lear for five pounds!

2. As represented by the work of art above, it is really cooooold in Stratford. In March. Sometimes it feels like I never left Ireland at all, what with all the indecisive weather. Not pleased with these turn of events, as I did not plan on WEARING WINTER GLOVES IN MARCH.

3. Thanks to the other half, I now have tickets for Richard II at the Barbican this December. One also recommends quite highly A Life of Galileo at the Swan and also looks forward to Hamlet and As You Like It at the RST, as well as the SI Players’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream THIS WEEK (break several legs, guys!).

4. I think I have a dissertation topic. It’s formulating and is still quite embryonic, but I’m genuinely quite excited about it. More anon.

5. Here is a horse. I drew it for you.

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If anyone can think of a name for him, I’d be forever grateful.

It’s slowly dawning on me that this post was an excuse just to draw amateurish pictures on Paint. Bet you loved it anyway.