Opening this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival with a violent bang, Schaubühne Berlin’s Hamlet is a devastatingly original, viciously funny and superbly modern telling of a story that has lost none of its relevance.
Beginning almost in a trance, Hamlet recounts “To be or not to be” into a handheld camera, discovering through darkness the faces of the other characters, as if they were the other participants in his own dream. Perhaps we are being asked if they are real, or figments of his imagination? They emerge together onto the muddy stage to attend the funeral of Hamlet’s father, which, despite starting in solemn ceremony, soon descends into dangerous farce, as first the gravedigger makes a hash of proceedings, at one time straddling and humping the coffin, before Claudius tumbles and pathetically thrashes about in the mud. It is almost a dumb show anticipating the entire play – the tottering state personified by the new King hopelessly flailing in the wet earth.
The court is delightfully depicted as a rotting bacchanal, with Claudius and Gertrude’s marriage played out like the worst, and most sycophantic celebration, replete with overblown speeches, drunken belly-dancing and dodgy karaoke. We learn very quickly there is nothing very hidden or subtle in this world. From the very beginning Urs Jucker’s Claudius is edgy, unsuited to his new responsibilities, his wife Gertrude (Jenny König) a washed-up Hollywood starlet, overtly sexual and jaded, Polonius (Robert Beyer) swinging wonderfully between dallying bore and violently petulant domestic tyrant.
At the heart of all this is Lars Eidinger’s terrifyingly charismatic Prince. This is no “rogue and peasant slave” unable to exact revenge, but a snarling bear, prowling the stage with menace and manic energy. When given the chance to revenge his father’s murder on Claudius his choice not to kill emerges not from indecision, but from cold-blooded ruthlessness. He will wait until he can catch Claudius in some unsavoury act so his soul will be as damned and black “as the hell whereto it goes.” This is not the philosopher prince, the effeminate scholar afraid of action, but a desperate and ferocious young man lurching violently from one tragedy to the next, coming closer to true madness every step of the way.
Indeed for director Thomas Ostermeier, Hamlet’s madness is the vital crux of the play. Is it real? Is it feigned? At the denouement there is beautiful pathos in Hamlet’s explanation to Laertes that any wrongs he did him were committed by Hamlet’s madness, the chief victim of which is Hamlet himself. He moves his hand over his face repeatedly, interchanging between blank stare and deranged grin. We no longer know which is the real Hamlet. But more than this, we no longer know which one is truly mad? Is it the raving ghoul who eats dirt and lusts for death, or the lifeless drone willing to bear the “whips and scorns of time”?
Katie Mitchell writes that it is essential for actors to inhabit the same play, the same world. There is such a unity of purpose and of execution in this production one wonders if the Schaubühne company do not inhabit their fictional Denmark all the time. The world they have created, despite the contemporary trappings of beer cans, umbrellas and sunglasses, is not our world. It is a true cipher, a mirror held up to nature and to us, the audience. They have torn this play apart and rebuilt it again as one of the most prescient and important pieces of literature ever written.