Earlier this month, I caught Schaubuhne Berlin’s Hamlet at the Barbican London. What an amazing ride! This was Hamlet as a comedy – contemporary, knowing, witty, and alive. I imagine the experience is the closest we could come to a modern version of the experience that Shakespeare’s own audience would have had. The play was presented in German (mostly), with English surtitles.
The performance began with the words from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, ending with “and perchance to dream”. Was all that followed, then, a dream? We were confronted with grainy, silent black and white images of people in dark formal dress, like newsreels of pre-war Eastern Europeans. Again, was this a deliberate allusion, perhaps a reminder of the last time we all were happy innocents prior to a great crime. Only after some time did we realize that the film we were seeing was not some collection of past newsreels, but live shots of the actors at the back of the stage, taken by young Hamlet wielding a hand-held video camera.
The first scene of the play then was the burial of old Hamlet, with lots of theatrical dirt and hose-pipe rain. The dirt and often the rain were present throughout the performance, like some muck that stuck to everyone regardless of how often they cleaned it off. The funeral degenerated into farce, and then the real fun began: the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude was presented as a typical Balkan wedding, with kitschy music, belly dancing, drunken announcers, and even – a very funny touch of realism here – someone firing off a machine gun. We learn this was Laertes!
Much of the humour, in the German theatrical tradition perhaps, was slapstick and not to my taste. Why did Hamlet have to wear a fatsuit, for example? Some of the humour, however, was witty and clever. Three times the actors turned to the audience, the house lights going up, and we then became part of the action. The best of these times was during the late soliloquy of Claudius (Act 3, scene 3) – when he seems to confess: “O my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven.” Claudius played this scene as an episode of a Jerry Springer show, coming down as the compere into the audience to ask our opinions of the offence.
Several times, too, the actors pretended to lose their place or forget their words (in German), so looked up to the English surtitles to see what they should be saying next. Similarly, great fun was had when the court was informed that Hamlet intended to stage a play. Well, Claudius was informed, not so much a play as a theatre-piece (“theaterstuck”); Claudius repeated this word with all the disdain one can imagine a man of his age and class having for avant-garde theatre. This was very funny. Even the final death scene, although mostly serious, was played for laughs, with all us knowing that it was an act and not for real.
Because the cast was small (six actors), there was much doubling. A different coloured wig transformed Gertrude to Ophelia, and the transformation of the actress, Judith Rosmair, from a middle-aged, Jacqueline Kennedy-lookalike to teenage girl was immensely convincing. Her voice, her words, her stance, her mannerisms, her movements – all changed, and instantly. And how clever to allude to Mrs Kennedy-Onassis when portraying Gertrude! Hamlet was played by Lars Eidinger.
This was “Hamlet” done brilliantly, original and thought-provoking. And immensely funny. Superb!
(HT: Benjamin Leitch.)