Der bestrafte Brudermord
Performed by Hidden Room Theatre
Directed by Beth Burns
Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
25 October 2013
Review by James Loehlin
Der bestrafte Brudermord has been getting a lot of attention lately. This early German version of Hamlet—one of the first surviving adaptations of a Shakespeare play into another language—was performed in German in 2010 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, as part of Christine Schmidle’s graduate thesis for Mary Baldwin College. On October 25, 2013, it was staged again in Staunton, this time as part of the Blackfriars Conference on early modern performance. This most recent production, by the Hidden Room Theatre of Austin, Texas, was of a most unusual kind: a puppet show. The event, a capstone of this year’s conference, was an experiment based on Oxford scholar Tiffany Stern’s contention that Brudermord may at one time have been a puppet play, part of an understudied history of marionette adaptations of Shakespeare.
The origins of Der bestrafte Brudermord are something of a mystery; it was not published until the late 18th century, but it may belong to a tradition of continental performances by “English Comedians” going back to Shakespeare’s own lifetime. It seems to bear some relation to the First Quarto or an ur-Hamlet—the Polonius character is called Corambus—but it also includes a clown named Phantasmo, a prologue involving Night and her furies, and a tale of a guilt-ridden Strasburg murderess. It is short on soliloquies and long on farcical action. And Stern has found tantalizing hints that a play with this title was performed as a puppet show in Germany (see Shakespeare Bulletin 31:3, Fall 2013). All these factors led to the puppet performance by Hidden Room, a Texas company that specializes in original-practices Shakespeare.
At the Blackfriars Conference, Brudermord was performed by three puppeteers and two “interpreters”, actors positioned in front of the puppet stage who spoke all of the dialogue. One of these, Jason Newman, provided musical accompaniment while voicing the King, the Ghost, and supporting parts; the other, Judd Farris, had the bulk of the lines, often voicing several characters, male and female, within a given scene. Farris also served as a sort of master of ceremonies for the performance, using a stick to point to the puppet understood to be speaking at any given moment. Farris stood while Newman sat, and he often interacted directly with the audience, encouraging spectators to boo the villainous King, for instance, or improvising silent comedy to cover scene changes.
The puppets were beautifully crafted and costumed figures about three feet high, controlled from above by a metal rod and wires that could manipulate the arms. Both puppets and interpreters wore the satin costumes and elaborate wigs of the late seventeenth century. The performance took place in a substantial miniature proscenium theatre, some fifteen feet high altogether, which had been erected for the occasion on the stage of the Blackfriars Playhouse. The stage on which the puppets interacted was perhaps five feet above the floor, and had elegant changeable wing-and-border scenery in the Neoclassical style. The performance was easily audible and visible from most parts of the Blackfriars auditorium (except for the side boxes), in spite of the low, universal lighting that is the norm in that space. The play was given in Schmidle’s English translation, and ran about ninety minutes without a break.
The tone of the performance, almost throughout, was one of comic burlesque. The audience of Shakespeare scholars, having come straight from a celebratory banquet, were more than happy to laugh at the antics of the puppets, as well as at Brudermord’s coarse and choppy version of the familiar narrative. The performers rather played up this tendency; the interpreters used comic voices and clowned with the audience, while the puppeteers milked such moments as Hamlet banging his head into the wall in despair while the King courts his mother. Several moments in the Brudermord text encourage this slapstick approach, for instance when the Ghost boxes the ears of the frightened sentry guarding the castle (a moment that worked wonderfully well in this performance). One of the most distinctive episodes in Brudermord is when the equivalents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern prepare to execute Hamlet by shooting at him from opposite sides, only to shoot each other when he drops out of their line of fire. This is a moment that probably works better in puppet performance than with live actors, and it drew huge laughs in the Hidden Room production.
The production, which will play in Austin, Texas in January, might benefit from more variety of tone. There was certainly some of the magic that puppet theatre can create—the opening entrance of Night was thrilling, and the mad Ophelia achieved moments of pathos—but on the whole this production seemed fixed in the humorous mode that Stern and Burns find inherent in a puppet performance of the Hamlet story. It seems to me that the Brudermord text, for all its clowning and absurdity, offers more than this at times, and that the Hidden Room performers are skilled enough to achieve a richer range of feeling as they continue their explorations. But this initial performance convinced me that whatever its history, Der bestrafte Brudermord can successfully be performed as a puppet play, and that such a performance may well be a part of the shadowy story of how Shakespeare’s works made their way into the cultural life of continental Europe.