Returning to Berlin after a two-year tour, Thomas Ostermeirer’s Hamlet delves right into the very core of the play; he carves out elements of tragedy and despair with a skill comparable to how a fisherman may gut a fish. What’s left is an intimate exploration into the psychological state of the play’s protagonist that attacks every single one of the senses.
The last production of Hamlet that I sat through was five years ago. I fell asleep. Twice. My Shakespearean-induced nap was no reflection on my interest in William and his works: I had been dragged to watch an incredibly dry five-act production after hours upon hours of laborious close reading (which did anything but make the text any clearer – in fact, it simply encouraged a resentment for every last act of Hamlet). I was also sat up in the God’s and surrounded by other snoozing patrons; many of who were snoring. The sad thing is, although my years at university (and then again at postgraduate study) allowed my interest in Shakespeare to blossom into a fond admiration, my memories of Hamlet have ever since been haunted by the snooze-fest that I found myself subjected to many years ago.
Cue: sheer joy at the prospect of a Hamlet production that turns all my pre-conceived notions of Shakespearean performance on their head.
A tale of procrastination and paranoia, the young prince Hamlet (Lars Eidinger) is left reeling after the death of his father. His despair is swiftly worsened by not only learning that the man responsible is his uncle Claudius (Urs Jucker) – but that his mother is in fact set to marry his father’s killer. The deeply troubled Hamlet spends the entirety of the play squabbling with himself as he battles between urges to murder Claudius and the moral consequences that he’d be forced to face should he carry out his murderous fantasy.
The stage consists of little more than a giant trough of dirt, with a platform that moves back and forth; upon which is a long banquet table and chairs. A long curtain of chains hangs from a lighting rig above the stage, spanning the width of the trough and forming a screen for digital projection at frequent points during the performance. Although simple in concept, the stage functions in a multitude of practical ways: in order for characters to move from one scene to another they merely pass through the curtain, and due to the availability of mud, the audience are able to witness a physical burial of King Hamlet at the very start of the play, complete with coffin and dark but comic gravedigger routine.
The dirt-box setting makes for a rather grubby experience, yet as water, cranberry juice and milk are introduced and thrown about the stage, the mess never once spatters the audience. The level of control from all members of the cast is impossible to miss: yes Hamlet kicks a bottle full of water across the room in temper, but he does so with a specific intention – and that is not to simply try and terrify his audience with the threat of soaking them. In a piece of theatre that demands physical endurance from his character, Eidinger never once slips or trips – each ‘messy’ aspect is conducted with the precision of a well-choreographed routine, with an unfaltering command of every prop used and every movement executed.
Eidinger’s Hamlet is squalid, overweight and a little spoilt. He spends the whole of his father’s burial – and in the case of this production, the reception of his mother’s re-marriage – pouting sulkily before exploding in a mud-throwing tantrum. By no means does Eidinger present his character a likeable. Audience members find themselves faced with a strange form of anti-hero, who they don’t particularly like – if only marginally more than Claudius. That’s the remarkable thing about this production: Hamlet isn’t dressed up as a saint, he comes across as selfish and immature, and subsequently, the shift from the façade of madness to actual insanity becomes painfully real. An intimate sense of Hamlet’s state of mind is only heightened by the introduction of a hand held camera: Eidinger frequently whips out a camera and documents his own thoughts as well as the goings-on upon the stage, to then be projected upon the chain screen. The inclusion of such is a neat little touch that raises questions concerning voyeurism within the production – we’re watching Hamlet’s watching of others, who are watching him.
In all honesty I could quite happily gush about this production for hours and hours (as I have done to any unsuspecting pal that’s crossed my path in the past week – interested in theatre or not) but I think the real testament of this piece is this simple fact: the whole thing was in German. This may seem irrelevant, until you take into consideration that I don’t speak or understand a single word of the language, yet I’m quite happy to sit for three hours, sans interval, and become utterly absorbed in the whole production. At no point do I find myself lost – even Eidinger in drag only disorientates me for a brief second – and considering that the small cast multi-role frequently without any drastic costume changes I consider this a massive feat. I would encourage you to see at least one play in a language that you aren’t familiar with – being distanced from the language makes you solely dependant on all the other factors of the production and heightens your awareness to the smallest of details – perhaps something that you never would have noticed or particularly cared about before. In this case of this production, it may seem like a cop-out but there really is nothing more I can say about Ostemeier’s Hamlet except “reprise please!”.
The Berlin Theatre Festival is an annual theatre festival held in Berlin. For more details see the English version of their website here.