Friday, January 15, 2010

Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Schaubühne Berlin directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Sydney Festival at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, January 8-16, 2010

Theatre by Frank McKone: Two reviews - standard newspaper style and magazine style.  Comments invited.

1.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Schaubühne Berlin directed by Thomas Ostermeier.  Sydney Festival at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, January 8-16, 2010.  In German with surtitles.

Mud, mud, (in-)glorious mud.  What a difference from Australia’s own Hamlet on Ice or the British traditional Laurence Olivier film that my generation was brought up on.  This Hamlet really is mad, with lucid moments, in grief at the death of his father. Madder as he realises what his mother has done and what women may do under a man’s control.  Mad with anger and thoughts of revenge against his uncle, the murderer.  Mad with fear that he may destroy the innocent Ophelia, with regret that he has killed her father, assuming Polonius to be King Claudius behind the arras.  Mad at himself for not knowing how to take action, when, or what to do.

When the end comes, alone in the mud of the graveyard, we understand what “The rest is silence” means.  At last, his death is a relief for Hamlet, and felt by the audience to be a kind of triumph.  As the stage switched to black, in silence, the applause exploded, calling the cast back 5 times when I was there to express appreciation for the artistry of this production.

A surprising feature of this adaptation, which includes occasional modern language, topical references and even improvisation as Hamlet directly addresses his audience (characters in the play and us in the auditorium) is the humour.  Shakespeare built this in to the gravedigger and Polonius, but Ostermeier and the translator Marius von Mayenburg have dared to show how watching a mad person is often very funny.  The mood switches from zany wild clowning to humour which suddenly becomes very black, and again to terrible feelings of complete breakdown.  Though Lars Eidinger as Hamlet has received most publicity, all the cast are entirely in control of their work in this highly expressionistic mode.  Judith Rosmair’s scene as the broken Ophelia, hardly able to articulate her words, was just extraordinary.  How different in style from the past is this performance, but how true it seems to be to Shakespeare’s intentions.

To bring, or not to bring this production to Australia may once have been the question, but the Schaubühne company prove the answer to be absolutely in the positive. 

2.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.  Schaubühne Berlin directed by Thomas Ostermeier.  Sydney Festival at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, January 8-16, 2010.  In German with surtitles.

The essential question of any theatre production is Hamlet’s: to be, or not to be.  The answer for Schaubühne is about whether their adaptation can be seen as true to Shakespeare’s intentions, as well as create a genuine response from a modern audience.  Being chosen for the Sydney Festival also raises the question of translation from Berlin to Australia, Sydney in particular.

The answer is in the positive on all three counts, in my view, but you need to know more.  Taking the last first, Lars Eidinger, playing Hamlet, is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, saying that his use of improvised dialogue directly to the audience and of the humour in this version has a quite different effect in Berlin than in Sydney.  In Germany he does not talk directly to those watching, and he thought people there laughed only to show themselves to be with it.  In Sydney, the laughter is a genuine response, and it was clear to me (on Tuesday January 12) that the enjoyment of the business of theatre flowed fast between audience and actors, however fashionably dressed up Sydney people can be.  Eidinger talked of “insight”, and I agree that Sydney audiences have a sophisticated appreciation of theatre which has grown over the past several decades.  (Aside: see SMH Letters to the Editor, Friday January 15, for a contrasting view.) Translating the words and the action from Berlin to Sydney has been not just successful, but has brought out the best at both ends.

Oddly perhaps, I thought the surtitles showing Shakespeare’s original text was a brilliant Brechtian idea.  We picked up the feeling from the sound of the German, the physical action and the live camera images while we also saw the words.  I don’t know if the result was deliberate, but the ‘literalisation’ created exactly the right degree of ‘alienation effect’, allowing us to be both participants in the emotion and observers understanding the significance of the ideas.  Perhaps in Berlin they should perform in English with surtitles in German, although I was conscious that the rhythm and cadences of Shakespeare’s language do not translate well into a different set of words and sentence structures.

This production takes literally Shakespeare’s emphasis on earth and nature, as against the unnatural and dysfunctional.  The main part of the stage, thrust towards the audience, is covered in soil which, when wetted by characters holding garden hoses to represent Danish rain, turns into slippery mud.  What this material actually is I don’t know, considering that actors buried their faces in it and apparently were still able to breathe, but the symbolic import was very clear.  Earth, and nature, are unforgiving rather than being the sort of ideal harmonious environment that has become the fashionable view since the Romantics held sway. 

Hamlet is shown to be justifiably mad, in the sense that although he knows he is behaving madly, everything that has happened around his father’s death and what happens as the play progresses goes against any possibility of his being able to direct events or control his life.  This version concentrates on his personal and the local political life, leaving out Shakespeare’s wider political concerns about the forthcoming invasion by Fortinbras from Poland, except at the very end when we hear the drums of the approaching army to heighten the tension as all but Horatio die.  I thought it would have been better to have left even this reference out, because the collapse of Denmark’s ruling elite was obvious enough in any case. 

Shakespeare himself may well have not used all the material he wrote.  I suspect the final gathering together of the whole script, I think in 1604, was probably in defence against others pinching his script – perhaps an early attempt at proving copyright ownership – but the result is more than four hours long and loses focus when what’s going on outside Denmark has to be covered. 

So I conclude that the Schaubühne company have been true to Shakespeare’s central concerns.  They also come from a long tradition, in my view beginning essentially from Erwin Piscator’s productions from the 1920s, of using expressionist techniques to open up theatre to the expansion of ideas in some degree in contrast to the ‘naturalism’ of the late 19th Century (which is still popular today). Schaubühne began in 1962, only a few years before Piscator died (still directing theatre in Berlin after his sojourn in the US during the Nazi period), and it seems to me they have continued and developed that tradition, which is much more in tune with Shakespeare’s ‘presentational’ theatre than with naturalism.  This explains why this production is far superior to the ‘psychological angst’ versions that we have become familiar with (and also shows that Freud in his use of both the Oedipus and the Hamlet dramas got things out of kilter).

I think Schaubühne got the art into kilter, however much Hamlet’s world falls apart.  This is why the audience responded so well when I saw the play, their applause bringing the cast back on stage five times for bows.

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