Hamlet, directed by Maciej Englert, Teatr Współczesny w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. 30 November 2013.
Review by Magdalena Cieślak
The curtain goes up. Centre stage, there is a chair slightly resembling that in Olivier’s Hamlet. A person is sitting in that chair in a pose slightly recalling Olivier’s brooding prince. As courtiers start pouring in, the solitary figure – Hamlet – stands up and hides behind a pillar, wanting to be unnoticed. All courtiers are wearing black, but they do not seem to be in the mourning. They greet each other and talk merrily. When Gertrude notices Hamlet she approaches him, but is stopped half-way by Claudius, who leads her in another direction. Lights fade out, Hamlet disappears, and the action starts with Bernardo’s “Who’s there?”.
Teatr Współczesny w Warszawie is rather conventional, claiming to have always cherished and continued the traditions of pre-war theatre. Its principal ideas are not to follow new trends and please capricious audiences but to offer honest and professional theatre, and to combine entertainment value with quality repertoire. Under the leadership of Maciej Englert since 1981, Teatr Współczesny has enjoyed a stable and respectable position doing decent plays with established and publicly recognizable ensemble. Maciej Englert himself is a director who brings out hope and idealism in his productions. Never cynical, he is rather nostalgic and believing.
Such is also his production of Hamlet. Advertising the production the website suggests that it is an attempt to free the play from comments, labels and interpretations it has been loaded with for years and have a fresh look at it. In many ways, it is indeed a rather straight-forward reading of the play. Hamlet, though bordering on madness, is a good and honest young man who believes that things are always black or white. He loves Ophelia and she loves him, but their love and idealism are tainted and ruined by the meddling of the older generation (fig. 1). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also do not mean ill. They think they are acting in Hamlet’s best interest. Laertes is even more foolishly idealistic than Hamlet, which makes him all the more tragic. The worst thing is that the grown-ups are not entirely evil either, but rather naïve or blind in their convictions and assumptions. Polonius means well too, but is such an idiot that he is laughed at even by his children, and one cannot help but feel sorry for him even though he brings his daughter to despair. Gertrude thinks all is fine and really does not see why Hamlet rages; when he eventually points it out to her, she has no idea what to do with it. Claudius simply does what he believes must be done in the circumstances, trying to do it with minimum harm to all (fig. 2). The real tragedy is in the fact that the younger generation fails to see the world’s corruption, which makes them helpless, and the older generation fails to see beyond their interests, which makes them cruel.
Maciej Englert went for nearly full text of the play, an unlikely decision in Polish theatre practice, where radical intervention in the text is a far more frequent strategy, especially with Shakespeare’s lengthy plays. This choice has an undeniable educational value. Even if most people are familiar with Hamlet, be it through school, theatre or film, watching a full text production is a rare experience. I could sense audience members going “Oh, so that’s in Hamlet too?” For me personally, it was a lovely reminder of some rarely performed or filmed moments, like the wonderful metadramatic talk between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the “late innovation” of children actors pushing professional actors out of business. The full text allows for celebrating the self-referential fragments about theatre and acting, thus highlighting the fact that Hamlet loves theatre, books and art, which makes him fit for role-playing but not for taking bloody revenge.
In spite of the full text, the production is centered very much around Hamlet. Hamlet is played by Borys Szyc, a celebrity in Polish cinema, a star of most recent Polish romantic and not so romantic comedies, action films and political dramas, known also for splendid dubbing of the superdog in Bolt (fig. 3). He is a good actor, but an even better marketing ploy. His role in the performance as an audience-puller is similar to that of David Tennant in Greg Doran’s RSC Hamlet or David Radcliffe in the West End Equus. His Hamlet follows the line and legacy of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs-like unpredictable action Hamlet, only Szyc looks really young, which works to the benefit of the image of a young man who plays mad so superbly that one wonders how much madness there actually is in him. It is this spark of insanity that fuels his emotions and actions. Even if Szyc is not inspiring in soliloquies, he is spectacular in scenes of verbal and emotional combat (fig. 4). In mocking Polonius or in the witty dialogues with Rosencratnz and Guildenstern we see a Hamlet whose sense of humour could save the world from its stupidity and corruption. And when his emotions are geared into action, Hamlet’s tragedy becomes tangible. In his mother’s closet, his aggression is an expression of his helplessness when he sees that his mother misses such an important point. At Ophelia’s funeral, raving at the news of her death and challenging Laertes’s show of love, he is furious when he realizes to what extend their lives got messed up by those in power. In the duel scene, when the treachery is revealed, he is hurt, betrayed, and simply deeply unhappy. His childlike naivety, a weakness of so many stage and film Hamlets, in Borys Szyc’s version is endearing, and makes the audience feel that, against their better judgment perhaps, they take his side.
The scenography, costumes and choice of translation locate the production in an undefined, quasi-contemporary but slightly anachronistic realm, to be read as timeless. It best befits the idea behind Englert’s production – that of idealism, belief in goodness in human being, and hope.
It is not an original approach to the play. It is a consistent one, however, and performed with professionalism and energy. Fueled by Hamlet’s fire, it offers “intelligent” entertainment that leaves the audience feeling that even classical Shakespeare still makes sense.
Photographs: Magda Hueckel, courtesy of Teatr Współczesny w Warszawie