Hamlet: Koko Totuus [Hamlet: The Whole Truth]. Adaptation by Ville Kurki and ensemble, based on the translation into Finnish by Matti Rossi. Directed by Ville Kurki for Grus Theater, performed at the Turku Castle, Turku, Finland. 1 February, 2017.
Reviewed by Nely Keinänen
It was a very cold and dark winter night when my two theater companions and I slipped and slid on the icy path heading towards the Turku Castle. Meeting us at the gate were soldiers anachronistically clad in armor and reflective vests, who ominously confiscated our cell phones, giving us in return a small plastic skull. Half the skulls had orange dots, the other half not, and thus we became Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, characters in a play. Our job: to listen, to decide whether Hamlet suffers from love sickness, or something worse. We were further divided into two smaller groups, to be or not to be. Four groups, with four different experiences of the same play, in one of the most ingeniously choreographed, and moving, Hamlets I have ever seen.
The Turku Castle was a magnificent setting for the production. We moved between six locations, the modernized foyer, where the play began and ended, and five spaces in the medieval section of the castle, including a balcony overlooking the castle courtyard. Each room housed a scene, two of which were performed four times for the different groups, two others performed twice for combined groups, and then the final scene bringing everyone together for the first time. Jaakko Ohtonen’s Hamlet had to rush between scenes, putting in an appearance here, then there, in a performance timed to the minute—and which went off, as far as I could tell, without a hitch.
My group was first taken up a very narrow and winding staircase to a room which looked like it was going to be the gravedigger’s scene—the Gravedigger (Ishmael Falke, a puppeteer) was busily emptying bones from a grave in the corner, dressed in orange overalls and a stiff white ruff, with a patch on his back indicating he was a municipal worker in Elsinore. Falke took us through several stories using hardly more than his hands, with little plastic skulls (a recurring motif throughout the performance) and a bass violin as props. In a magical demonstration of puppetry, Falke unveils the corpse on his table (the bass), which becomes his stage for showing us Claudius killing Hamlet Senior, Claudius and Gertrude falling in love and having raucous sex (!), and then Ophelia rowing herself in on a barge, drowning and flying up to heaven. The bass violin and the way it was linked to the female body made one of my companions think of Man Ray’s photo “Ingres’s Violin,” an apt allusion considering the emphasis on sexuality in this production. Towards the end of the scene Hamlet came in and asked what was going on. None of us told him.
From here my group moved into a somewhat larger hall, Hamlet’s chamber, where he is nervously pacing back and forth, wondering what to do. He is joined by Yorick (Janna Haavisto, a mime), dressed in traditional white and black, who does a kind of duet with him of the “To be or not to be” speech. It was stunning. Yorick is Hamlet’s conscience, prodding him to action, yet also serenely offering a place where he can do nothing. Towards the end of this sequence, Hamlet begins wondering whether he should go outside: he heads towards the door, pauses, retreats, regains his courage, retreats again. Standing near, I could feel his angst, his indecision, his childish need to obey his father in conflict with his adult desire to be cautious. I don’t think I’ve ever sympathized so deeply with Hamlet’s dilemma. Maybe if we all went outside together, he could manage. Obediently, we followed.
“Outside” meant onto a balcony overlooking the castle courtyard (remember, it was cold out). Down below is Markku Tuulenkari’s energetic Claudius, asking Hamlet where the body is. Hamlet joins us on the balcony, saying “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, follow your nose.” This is followed by a solo mimed piece by Yorick, who like the Gravedigger uses a skull as a prop, though in her imagination the skull is heavy, too heavy, weighing her (and us) down. At the end of the sequence a Nun enters and whispers something into Yorick’s ear, enabling her to freely and easily lift the skull over her head. This was the one moment we couldn’t later somehow place onto Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Its significance is heightened at the very end of the play, where it is Yorick, with a stern glance, who gives Hamlet courage to die.
From here we moved to what turned out to be one of the most moving scenes in the play. Earlier, while walking through the castle, we’d come across a young girl sitting with her legs dangling over an edge (onto our heads as we passed under), who sits quietly, her eyes closed. This is Ophelia. And now, we were ushered into a room known as the Nun’s Chapel, where two nuns are singing in exquisite harmony, their voices echoing on the vaulted ceiling. Ever-so-young Ophelia (Venla Kinnunen), carrying a pink wig and a white rose, painfully drags herself into the room, her arms barely strong enough to pull her weight. Finally managing to reach the central supporting pillar, she offers her rose to a member of the audience. She speaks not a word, but seldom have I understood so well how shattered Ophelia becomes, both mentally and especially physically.
From here my group was led to the queen’s chamber, where Sofia Molin’s Gertrude holds court, a glass of wine never too far from her lips. Projected onto the brick wall at one end is a video of Hamlet’s face, which at one point she approaches and hugs, a metatheatrical moment reminding us that Ohtonen is off acting elsewhere. Like the other scenes, this is a pastiche of several moments in Shakespeare’s play: Claudius and Gertrude making a grand (and in their case passionate) entrance; Gertrude telling Hamlet to stop mourning; Ophelia being asked to read a love letter Hamlet has sent her, interrupted by Hamlet coming in and telling her to go to a nunnery (their only exchange in this version); and then the closet scene, where Jaakko Ohtonen’s Hamlet displays almost shocking anger towards his mother (during the Gravedigger scene we heard his shouts, but at that point couldn’t place them). This scene ends in one of the production’s forages into farce, with Jarno Sakki’s Polonius pulling out red cords representing his intestines during his drawn-out death.
From here my group was brought back to the foyer, where we saw what the other group had seen first. First a mysterious mute child (Mimi Mylly) walks slowly towards the area where we were seated, followed by the Ghost of Hamlet Senior (Anne Kankare), oddly dressed in a Darth Vader costume. Attention then shifts to Claudius, who has been waiting right in front of us, hidden under a red cloak. The play makes literal the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as there are a number of arrows coming out of Claudius’s chest, one for each of the people who dies in this story. There are moments of the prayer sequence, where Markku Tuulenkari impressively conveys Claudius’s guilt mixed with joy at the fruits of his crime, and his fear was palpable as he asked us in our character as Rosencrantz (or were we Guildenstern?) to find out whether he was in danger. Hamlet rushes in, dramatically pointing his sword at his uncle’s neck, but then backs off. Later, Hamlet asks us to take out our skulls and swear never to tell anyone anything about what we’ve witnessed here. Three times we swear, making me wonder about the decision to leave Horatio out of the play, the character charged with telling Hamlet’s story later.
In the final scene, the entire audience comes together for the first time, split on two levels around a staircase. The bass violin, wrapped in a white cover, is brought down the stairs, effectively announcing the start of Ophelia’s funeral. Hamlet enters carrying Ophelia’s pink wig. Laertes (Henri Keränen) comes in, jumps over Ophelia’s coffin, and starts to fight Hamlet, but intriguingly Yorick takes Laertes’ sword and defeats Hamlet. Played so beautifully by the mime, the silent Yorick seems to have two functions in the play: one, to highlight the theme of death, emphasized throughout with the skulls, but also to suggest that Hamlet is not alone in death; this Horatio-like friend will accompany Hamlet to the other side.
Vanquished by Yorick, Hamlet asks for the last word, sending the play for the second time to farce as he grabs a microphone and begins to rap about words, words, words, about truth and lies, whom you can trust, whom you cannot. As much as I dislike farce at the end of Hamlet (is this only a Finnish thing?), there were some very funny moments. The deaths are done as a kind of running race, with lanes and a finish line. In lane 1 is Gertrude, to whom Hamlet gives the poisoned glass, saying, “why don’t you take an accidental sip” to which she replies, “who said it was an accident?” In lane 2 is Laertes, and in lane 3 Claudius. Stabbed by Hamlet, Claudius squirms towards his crown, and then Hamlet kicks it a little farther off, saying “let’s make it a little harder for the old man.” Hamlet’s death is farcical, then suddenly not: there’s some silly business with suicide by microphone cord, but when the rest is finally silence, it felt absolute. The audience was so stunned by the last scene that we didn’t know how to react, and Yorick had to take a step forward, liberating us all. The applause was truly heartfelt.
I’ve seen several productions where the audience follows the cast, most memorably a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream done on an small island outside of Helsinki, where the fight between Hermia and Helena turned into mud wrestling. Something special happens in the audience at such a performance—after the first scene here I found myself sharing glances with my fellows (all strangers to me, as I’d been separated from my friends, as I imagine others had been as well), and it wasn’t long before we began whispering to each other between scenes. Because we were standing very close to the action, mainly in rather small rooms, I also felt like we developed a strong connection with the actors. As has been obvious in this description, the production does not try to tell the whole story, but rather according to the director offers the audience the opportunity to step into the world of Hamlet and find what they are looking for. People like the three of us, who have seen the play before, are likely to find a great deal, and indeed part of our enjoyment comes from appreciating the artistry which has gone into this reconstruction. But I think the performance would be somewhat hard-going for someone who has never seen or read the play.
I very much liked this production: its sheer logistics, its juxtapositions–not only of scenes and lines but also of puppetry, mime, acting. These, plus the magnificent setting, had us talking animatedly for the two hours it took to drive home. I would have liked to see it again, in a different order.