It has been said that the political unrest in a country can be measured by the frequency with which Hamlet is staged. It was performed repeatedly in Poland and Czech during times of occupation and following the massacre of Tianamen Square it appeared regularly throughout China. In the UK this year we have had at least five productions in London alone. While Michael Sheen is playing the prince as a psychiatric patient at the Young Vic, the Barbican version – performed by Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubuhne ensemble – has the tragic Dane, played by Lars Eidiger, rolling around in the mud.
Performed in German with English surtitles this production is a far more physical piece than one might expect. Visual and visceral, this is Hamlet as farce and dance, its hero ugly and his tragedy confused and comic. The production opens with a mud-covered stage acting as a graveyard for the burial of Hamlet’s father. Rain pours from a hose held up by a gravedigger and the funeral descends into a slippery slapstick breakdance to the roar of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Following this brave and gleeful opening comes a close-up of the prince projected across the stage as he stands with a video camera held to his face muttering “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt…”
Ostermeier famously brought the radical, so-called ‘blood and sperm’ plays of 90’s Britain to German audiences, making cult successes of writers such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Going on to run the Schaubühne, the holy grail of German theatre, he brought his fiercely modern and irreverent vision to the classics. After writing machine guns into Ibsen, he focused on Shakespeare, reconfiguring the Bard for the post-Blasted era. When asked why he moved onto the classics during the after-show talk, the disarmingly gentle and measured director told listeners that “Shakespeare was a radical young man too,” and explained his desire to reintroduce the bawdiness and brutality that he feels has been lost through over-romanticised German translation.
Behind the shock and vulgarity this is clearly a careful, rigorous and intelligent interpretation of the text. Ostermeier has Hamlet locked in a permanent adolescence, repetitively self-obsessing until his feigned madness becomes real. In a scene reminiscent of Festen, Claudius and Polonius slur like drunk best men into the microphone until Hamlet shatters the wedding breakfast with an outburst. This is not Hamlet the existential philosopher or the ‘sweet prince’, but Hamlet the spoilt child, a thrower of tantrums, unable to cope. At Ophelia’s funeral he shows an adolescents oblivion to the feelings of those around him and and attacks Laertes with the jealous melodrama of a teenager. This warped desperation for authenticity reveals the performative nature of love, sanity, madness and grief and they fight like two schoolboys, both wanting to play the hero.
There is thrill in realising- when you can pull your eyes from the action onstage for long enough to read the surtitles- that these are the Bards most sacred lines being delivered with petulance and contempt. Eidinger brings “To be or not to be” to us drunk from a table top, encased in a fat-suit with a plastic crown upside down on his head. Eidinger involves the audience, making all the men in the stalls shout “We want some pussy” before his smug delivery of the famous line: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
This is in many ways theatre about theatre; Ostermeier, like Shakespeare, is exploring the idea of acting. Only six actors perform the full cast and the decision to have Getrude and Ophelia played by the same actress engages freshly with arguments around Hamlet’s potential misogyny and incestuous intent. Close to the climax, trapped in a world where all significance and structure has disappeared, Hamlet clambers into the audience blowing raspberries like a toddler. This goes on for far longer than is comfortable and as his embarrassment turns to anger, we are forced to join him, waiting awkwardly and wishing somebody would just do something. This is an original and insightful production and as foreign language production’s necessarily encourage visual experimentation it would be good to see more of them make it to London. Fresh translations allow contemporary parallels to be drawn and in Europe today depictions of power, corruption and the madness of inaction carry added resonance; it will be interesting to see the Irish, Greek and Italian interpretations that must be going into rehearsal as we speak.