Hamlet. Abbatoir Fermé. Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, 5 November 2017
Reviewed by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)
Among the first intelligible words that Hamlet utters in this production is his speech on man, the “paragon of animals,” which yet “delights not [him].” Hamlet’s doubts about human nature seem to be confirmed throughout, more than the more optimistic view he begins with. By the time Hamlet speaks these words, the audience have sat through a kind of dumb show summary of the play, to the loud musical accompaniment of Iron Butterfly’s track “In-a-gadda-da-vida” (1968), coming from a jukebox as Hamlet’s selection. The sequence had shown the characters, the denizens of a seedy bar, smoking, boozing, flirting, fighting, yelling at each other; and it had ended with Hamlet casually killing Claudius by knocking on his head, and brutally murdering his mother by repeatedly hitting her with a dust bin, mercifully out of sight of the audience behind a counter. When Hamlet emerges from this orgy of violence, he just casually wipes the blood from his hands with a cloth; the loud music stops, and then the play is ready to begin in earnest. In its nihilistic over-the-top form, this opening sequence had some resemblances to Richard Curtis’s Skinhead Hamlet. As might be expected from his choice of music, Hamlet was dressed in faded jeans and a black T-shirt with some indistinct print on it, like a Heavy Metal fan; his passive brooding hung over the production like a cloud.
By contrast, Hamlet’s mother and uncle were very lively: drinking, smoking, flirting and touching each other in public, they enjoyed their honeymoon with little sense of restraint, no matter that the desk that they were using to put their wine bottle on was in fact old Hamlet’s coffin. As in an Irish wake, sorrow (if any) had long been drowned in alcohol. Everything—food, drink, blood, beermats—was spilled onto the wooden barroom floor, and only the bar-maid, called Ophelia, made some half-hearted attempts to clean up the mess. Although not all references to royalty had been removed from the text, the social setting seemed considerably less elevated than in Shakespeare’s original. All characters spoke in a broad Flemish dialect (occasionally glossing an unfamiliar term for the Dutch audience), and whereas Shakespeare’s Claudius and Gertrude preserve at least a degree of decorum in public, this seemed to be altogether lacking in this production. Claudius scolded Hamlet for playing his music so loud, joined him in a drum solo on the coffin, flung beermats at him, and fought with several of the other characters including his wife, before making up again with ostentatious love-making. What was worse, he did so while clear traces of blood were visible on his shirt and tie from the very beginning. When he confessed his sins in the prayer scene, it was like the maudlin behaviour of an alcoholic rather than true remorse, and when no instant sign of forgiveness was forthcoming from heaven, he reacted impatiently—so, how about it?
Gertrude was no more dignified. In her high heels and white outfit, which became dirtier by the minute, she strutted across the stage in long strides like a cartoon character (Olive Oil came to mind), and shared in Claudius’s shamelessness.
Ophelia, the barmaid, was likewise far from coy, and her outfit, too, got dirtier and dirtier, oozing from the red around her mouth. She wished to join in the celebration with Hamlet, but found him inexplicably unwilling. After he had ordered her to a nunnery, she made a final attempt at bringing Hamlet around: in a karaoke performance, she sang Meatloaf’s paean to adolescent lust, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” (1977), awfully out of tune. All three of them, joined by Horatio, came to the table that was Hamlet’s favourite retreat, and pleaded with him to cheer up and join the party, let bygones be bygones. Like a latter-day St Antony, Hamlet proved impervious to temptation. Yet even fun-loving Ophelia was bipolar from the beginning: whenever something bad happened, she put her head into the sink full of water in which she washed the beer glasses, and came up again gasping for air. The final character combined Horatio, Laertes, Polonius, and the grave-diggers, so that his personality was difficult to make out: friend or foe to Hamlet, confidante or object of his ridicule? In his function as Polonius, he hid himself in the coffin to eavesdrop during the closet scene, but ended up being suffocated when the opening remained closed off for too long. Yet, he was also needed as the grave-digger, so he was soon resurrected.
All these cartoon-like deaths followed by resurrections, gore and uninhibited displays of lust, obsessive smoking and drinking, and the low language, together gave the impression of a low burlesque of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Nevertheless there did seem to be a serious point to all this grand guignol. What appeared to bother Hamlet most of all was not the death of his father; nor was it a Freudian obsession with his mother, or indeed a political concern with good and honourable government. The main issue seemed to be his disgust with the unlimited hedonism of the other characters, particularly his elders. The karaoke, with everyone urging him to join in and make love to Ophelia, most of all showed the generation gap. The fact that the pop music that underscored this production was from the sixties and seventies may frame this in the present-day reaction against the uninhibited lifestyle associated with the Flower Power era. What was then, for the younger generation, a liberation from narrow bourgeois rules, has now turned into a disgusting spectacle of self-indulgence for at least some disenchanted youths. For a long time, Hamlet is the most passive character, simply sitting there at his desk and smoking, resistant rather than active. Yet at the end, when “In-a-gadda-da-vida” resounds once more, he mercilessly kills his uncle, and his mother immediately afterwards, with the dustbin. He wipes his hands, the music stops, and the lights go out. No Horatio comes to ask angels to sing him to heaven; nor is there any Fortinbras to wrap up the political plot, for there wasn’t any to begin with. The rest was, quite simply, a longed-for silence.