If theatre is a live product then Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet is a wake-up call to British directors who continually present the undead of theatre – the sort of theatre that merely plays before its audience, offering a slice of ‘British dramatic life’ in two hours. The audience relax in the darkness of the auditorium and the actors build their fourth walls and the director sits smugly at the back thinking “Yes, yes, this is theatre”. Ostermeier’s Hamlet tears apart Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the Prince of Denmark’s sad descent into madness, and presents a dirty, blood-spurting and heart-pounding live theatrical experience, where neither actor nor audience can escape the clutches of the direction. Directors take note: this is the theatre we need.
First presented in 2008 at the Schaubuhne in Berlin where Ostermeier is Artistic Director, this Hamlet has since traveled the world wrecking havoc along the way. Lars Eidinger as Hamlet is crazed from the opening line. Eidinger knows no boundaries and Ostermeier pushes him, breaking apart any centric point of the character, removing his soliloquies and tenderness, and instead presenting a figure that we as the audience rejoice in mocking. The end result is a Hamlet that mocks Shakespeare and mocks his audience.
This is not a Hamlet to take seriously, which Ostermeier makes all too clear. As the characters say goodbye to the dead king, a grave digger drops the coffin into its grave, straddling it into position, and thrusts dirt upon it. The funeral morphs into the wedding, and the dirt from the grave becomes the food of the feast. Visually striking and continually challenging, Ostermeier does away with much of the narrative-heavy dialogue, and opts for a literal explanation of scenes. Ostermeier throughout interjects snippets of contemporary language, English song, and even drags the action from the stage into the auditorium, with the cast directing questions at the audience – challenging responses. Look they say, look at us watching, what an audience we are.
Hamlet is relentless. Ostermeier takes this famous text and thrust it onto the stage. He forges a prince who is more of an animal than a man, and a supporting cast who are like the freaks at the circus. Video projection is interlaced with Jan Pappelbaum’s dirt-covered stage design. What becomes clever is Pappelbaum’s use of a curtain that helps to continually reflect Ostermeier’s questioning of actor/audience/play relationship. There is a point where Eidinger interjects across dialogue to announce that he “must now give a monologue”, before stepping forwards and beginning the famous “to be or not to be” speech. The conventions of theatre are stripped away, and as the Players present to Claudius a play, there is much mockery of theatre as an art, as a device and with it the audience itself. With an air of playfulness, Ostermeier’s Hamlet continually allows his cast to react, respond and confront its audience, turning a play into more than just a presentation, but an engagement.
You would think that with a Hamlet so torn apart and spat out, that much of the emotional journey that Hamlet, Ophelia, and indeed Claudius go through would be dispelled, yet this isn’t the case. There comes a point where Ostermeier switches the attention from merely playing to being. Eidinger’s Hamlet becomes internal, Judith Rosmair’s Ophelia becomes physically an imploding mass of words and jerked movements, and Urs Jucker’s Claudius is questioning truthfully. This sudden clarity acts as a hook for its audience, so that by the end, where characters don’t die, but float and foam at the mouth, it is not so much a laughing affair, but a saddening, silenced audience that watch.
This Hamlet is one that does away with the complexities of language. It presents a visual spectacle, an improvised and feverish story that heightens the dramatic impact of the production. Ostermeier taunts his audience. He takes us with him into exploring the world of Hamlet, the tarnished, fickle and unlovable rogue. It is a Hamlet that reaches out and demands that you take notice, but there’s also a distinction between those directors who dare to question our classics, and those who merely reproduce dead pieces. In this instance, I’d take Ostermeier’s live Hamlet than any other attempted version. This is what an audience needs – a living, breathing piece of theatre.