Hamlet, directed by Mikko Viherjuuri. Tampere Theater, Finland, 8 May 2013.
By Nely Keinänen.
Mikko Viherjuuri’s Hamlet opens not with a voice calling out “Who’s there?” but with a scene Shakespeare didn’t write (yet composed of lines he did), a private moment between Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes before they’re forced to join the larger celebration of marriage. They’re huddled around a table, reciting sonnets, with Hamlet’s familiar words about acting transferred here. Hamlet in particular understands the power of language, of theater, and most importantly, of acting. In a piece of effective dramatic irony, Hamlet listens as Laertes warns his sister about being in love with the prince. In showing us these happier moments, where Hamlet and Ophelia are good friends, as are Hamlet and Laertes, Viherjuuri deepens their tragedy: their emotional journey is long and hard. This intimate scene takes place on a bare set, lines of sonnets in white projected onto a dark background.
But then we hear the sounds of celebration, and first torches with their eerie flickering flames and then lights reveal Marjatta Kuivasto’s simple and effective set. On the back wall is a large white panel onto which is mounted a huge sword. Although visually the sword is reminiscent of a cross in a church, there is no sense of redemption. On the sides, angled out towards the audience, are metal structures, defining the space and providing a surprising airiness. Hamlet uses these to advantage when commenting that Denmark’s a prison. Raimo Salmi’s masterful lighting design uses color and shadow to great effect, especially the dark purples of the court. Costume designer Leena Rintala creates exquisite contrasts, with Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes in an ageless kind of modern dress, using black and white with touches of red, while the players arrive in Elizabethan costumes, changing into 18th century style for the play-within-the-play. Bare skin, especially bare arms, underlines the humanity, the fragility of these characters: the Ghost’s white arms glisten in the darkened stage, as do Hamlet’s during the final sword fight (contrasted with Laertes, who is in a white flowing long-sleeved shirt).
Tomi Alatalo’s Hamlet combines boyish high spirits with astonishing regality, his tall, lean figure every inch the royal prince. Hamlet is so profoundly disturbed by his mother’s wedding that his first act after escaping from the party is to attempt to slit his wrists, stopped only by Horatio (Kake Aunesneva), here played by an older actor, more servant than friend. Alatalo moves effortlessly between crazed comedy and high seriousness. Especially effective is his “to be or not to be” speech, performed to a paper bag painted with a mask, into which he places the necklaces Ophelia gives to him. In an effective bit of stage business, he then gives the bag to Ophelia, who takes out a broken necklace; these broken necklaces become the flowers and herbs she gives away when mad. Hamlet’s switch from love to horror at Ophelia, who lies to him, is deeply disturbing. Even more affecting is the closet scene, where for a brief moment Hamlet lays his head in Gertrude’s lap, palpably wishing to return to a state of lost childhood innocence, able to be comforted by his mother. This moment is beautifully set up by Viherjuuri’s choice to play the closet scene on the portable 18th century style stage wheeled in for the play-within-the-play. Hamlet has sunk onto the stage, wild with glee, anger and fear, when his mother marches in, herself full of purpose. You could feel him cringing, a little boy thinking “uh oh, what have I done now?”
Mari Turunen’s Gertrude is a confident, powerful woman, who loves her husband but adores her son. This Gertrude believes Hamlet when he tells her what Claudius has done, and makes little effort to hide her rage from her husband. The most affecting scene is during the final sword fight, where the entire onstage audience rhythmically cries out on each thrust of the sword, Gertrude loudest and most painfully of all. Hamlet dies in her arms, and she drinks the poison to spite her husband, calling him a “monster” just before she dies. Turkka Mastomäki, with his powerful voice and wonderful stage presence, is an excellent Claudius, especially in the subtle ways he is able to show barely concealed guilt and fear of getting caught
beneath his more visible resolve. Viherjuuri cut some of his part, including Claudius’s plot with Laertes to poison the tip of the sword, leading to a magical transition where the tussle at Ophelia’s grave turns directly into the final battle.
But while Viherjuuri is less interested in some of the political dimensions of the play (Fortinbras, too, was cut), these excisions allow him to explore in more detail the play’s focus on the power of theater. Most stunning of all was his choice to replace the performance of the Pyrrhus and Hecuba speech with the wooing of Anne in 1.2 of Richard III. The Players arrive in Elizabethan dress, pushing two large crates which become their backdrop, containing costumes and props. Tuija Ernamo’s performance as Anne, calling out for revenge but then succumbing to Richard’s advances, is riveting. I especially liked the way the mood was comically cut short when Polonius is given the lines “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” This scene is performed in Paavo Cajander’s 1897 translation of the play, creating an effective contrast between the language of the Players and the onstage audience, who are speaking the much more modern Finnish of Eeva-Liisa Manner’s translation (published in 1981). In a program note, Viherjuuri says he chose Manner’s translation because it felt more natural and beautiful to him than the others, as well as more dynamic, a trait he attributes to the preponderance of verbs used in the text.
Heikki Kinnunen’s Polonius is so hilarious that I uncharitably began to wonder why he would ever have been considered a trusted counselor. Eeva Hakulinen is a tough, worldly Ophelia at the beginning, which makes her descent into madness all the more effective at the end.
This was the second time I have seen Viherjuuri directing Shakespeare (the first was Othello in 2008, also for the Tampere Theater), and both times I walked away surprised, intrigued, and challenged. When the play ended with the words “Good night, sweet prince,” I was not the only one wiping my eyes.