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?


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.

Ostermeier’s reputation as an iconoclast precedes him. His career began, soon after graduating, with productions at the Baracke, an alternative space at the more traditional Deutsches Theater.

Ostermeier made Baracke artistic director in 1996, and turned mainly to contemporary English-language writers dealing with raw evocations of sex, drugs and power in a modern underworld: David Harrower’s Knives in Hens, Sarah Kane’s Crave, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs.

In 1999, Ostermeier’s appointment to the Schaubühne rocked the German establishment. In a former cinema in affluent Charlottenburg, the theatre had cultivated a loyal, greying audience for “sophisticated” versions of classic texts. Ostermeier, then a 29-year-old enfant terrible, brought the “little dirty plays” of the Baracke to more manicured environs and a new audience immediately followed him.

The standard line on the Schaubühne’s programming policy is that it treats new plays as though they were classics and classics as though they were new plays. A fresh piece of writing is afforded respect and clarity as it makes its first appearance. But a classic is always ripe for re-evaluation and substantial renovation. Ostermeier’s 2002 production of A Doll’s House, conceived with his frequent dramaturg Marius von Mayenburg, ended not with Nora walking out on her husband, but by pulling a gun on him. His Hedda Gabler, which came to the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2006, presented Ibsen’s heroine as psychotically bored, the subject of more modern repression.

“I’m not a big fan,” Ostermeier once said of Ibsen. “But he provides me with well-made, plot-driven plays, which I can rewrite and adapt for my purposes.” (Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People is at the Ulster Bank Festival at Queen’s in October.)

In conversation, Ostermeier is more polite about Shakespeare – even disappointingly reverential – full of appreciation for the poetry that Von Mayenburg’s new German translation will not fully furnish (“We have too many syllables”) or the “bloody humour” of its complex psychology.

Still, his interpretation is bold and brash, re-ordering scenes, cutting others and collapsing its roles into startling presentations. Oedipal interpreters will shiver at how Lucy Wirth plays both Gertrude and Ophelia with minimal adjustments, or that Urs Jucker plays both Claudius and the ghost of Old Hamlet. “It’s more important to try to discover what might be the core of the text and to rediscover this through casting, or by reducing the text to the most important scenes,” he says. “But it’s also important to say I don’t at any moment think of this as a definitive version of the play. It’s just one way of looking at it. I could do three or four or five other versions of the play. It’s just one aspect of this beautiful work.”

It is a cunningly contemporary aspect: anyone jaded by video cameras and microphones in alternative theatre (especially in recent productions of Hamlet) will take heart from the lucid logic of the production.

“Hamlet is kind of alienated,” Ostermeier reasons. “His way of trying to find out what is going on around him is to look at the world through the tool of a video camera. But this alienates him even more. Photographs and video are dead pictures. I think it was Godard who said editing a movie was like organising dead material. This is also what I’m trying to play with because the play, seems very dark and full of death. Shooting videos is also kind of organising dead material in opposition to live theatre, which is in the moment, three dimensional and happening now.”

That also sounds like the director’s role, but Ostermeier won’t fall into the trap of identifying with their hero. “I have a much more primitive view on Hamlet’s personality. He’s a spoiled brat. Okay, maybe I am myself. But I’m still in this world, still working on the truth of this play and still turning it in my head. Even though I’m not dressed in black all day.”

Hamlet himself is an aesthete, theorist and a true believer when it comes to the power of theatre – he even believes, and proves, a play will force a confession from a guilty audience member. “Ha ha! That’s a very romantic wish we all share with theatre,” admits Ostermeier, before saying, in Hamlet, it leads to the play’s catastrophe.

“This is the beauty of Shakespeare; the ambivalent view, and I kind of share it. I constantly pursue this idea of a socially, politically engaged theatre with a wish of pulling down the mask of people ruling society. ButI’m realistic enough to see that, probably, the world will never be changed by art.”

Theatre, however, has been changed by Ostermeier who politely grimaces at the mention of a forthcoming international conference about his work in London. “That is a great honour, but it also means you are about to end up in the museum.” It sounds unlikely but that’s classic Ostermeier.

The Schaubühne production of Hamlet, which opens this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival, is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from September 25th-27th.

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