Ostermeier’s ‘Hamlet’: what did you expect?

A thrillingly raw production of ‘Hamlet’ from Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre gives Shakespeare’s famously unstable character a licence to improvise. Is its famously iconoclastic director in complete control?

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00

Hamlet isn’t himself these days. He prowls around Elsinore – just an expanse of graveyard, littered with beer cans – like a sullen, schlubby figure, the star of his own tragicomedy. At his father’s grave, he stares so deep into the void that he falls in, taking a nosedive into a mound of earth.

Using a video camera to catch the conscience of the king – his bestial uncle, Claudius, now husband to his mother – Hamlet projects his vision of a corrupt court upon an undulating screen of gold chains; the most observed of all observers. Later, as a tormented avenger, his antic disposition takes unexpected turns: wearing an inverted crown like a dour jester, emceeing his own hip-hop concert (“Party people in the house, c’mon and let me hear you say yeeeaaahhh!”), or performing in the Mousetrap as a trashy drag artist.

On a recent evening in Berlin, the Schaubühne production of Hamlet became more thrillingly unpredictable. Distracted by the trudge of a young man leaving the performance – Hamlet called for the house lights. “Why are you going?” he asked.

“It’s not funny enough,” the departing teenager called back.

The actor, Lars Eidinger, considered this, together with 400 years of the play’s contested reception. “Not funny enough?” he replied. “What were you expecting?”

An immensely impressive staging that often seemed to rest on a razor edge of danger, the show resumed while its six-person cast absorbed these wild and whirling words into their performance. Asked later what she thought of the dumb show, Lucy Wirth’s Gertrude tells Hamlet, “It’s not funny enough.” Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.

The Schaubühne production, which opens this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, seems to have handed control of Shakespeare’s famously unstable play to Hamlet. But is Hamlet in complete control?

“He’s not,” says Thomas Ostermeier, the Schaubühne’s director. “But this is part of the agreement I have with [Eidinger]; that he has to be able to go over the top. Otherwise you cannot move your own borders. If I told him you can’t do something because it’s distasteful – which it is a lot of times – then there wouldn’t be a true meeting of madness and the danger of madness and the danger of the character and the danger of the actor playing this character. This concept of directing Hamlet makes sense to me – even though sometimes I have to swallow my anger because he doesn’t always hit the points he should – but it’s part of the freedom he got.” Six years since it first debuted, that freedom still makes it one of the most arresting interpretations of the play.

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