PLEASE CONTINUE (HAMLET) directed by Yan Duyvendak and Roger Bernat, New Classics of Europe Festival, Stefan Jaracz Theatre, Łódź, Poland. 10 November, 2014
Reviewed by Agnieszka Rasmus (University of Łódź)
Łódź boasts an interesting international festival called “New Classics of Europe” during which every year a number of inspiring, challenging, and acclaimed productions from all over the world are invited to the Stefan Jaracz Theatre. In November 2014 I had a unique opportunity to witness and experience a totally new dimension to theatre as well as Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, Hamlet.
Please, Continue (Hamlet) is not your straightforward production where you wonder how “to be or not to be” is going to be delivered this time round and whether they are going to do it in modern dress or Renaissance costumes. It is the ultimate experiment in form (and, as it turned out, the ultimate test for the audience) where Shakespeare’s Hamlet meets a real-life inspired murder case, where actors interact with real judges, prosecutors and barristers, where reality meets fiction. In fact, the entire show is a murder case trial during which we become acquainted not only with the ins and outs of Hamlet’s predicament but also the intricacies of the Polish judicial system. Before us stands a young Hamlet accused of killing Polonius, Ophelia as an auxiliary prosecutor, and Gertrude as a witness. Claudius is absent – he has fled to England. We all know how Shakespeare’s Hamlet ends. When illusion blends with reality, however, the outcome of the trial becomes totally unpredictable. Even the director does not know the verdict until the judge pronounces it towards the end.
To this effect, the auditorium and stage of Jaracz Theatre were brightly lit throughout the entire show. The audience were handed little notebooks with a cut-out court house on the front cover as if to indicate a thin line between theatrical illusion and reality that we all had a chance to witness during the infamous OJ Simpson trial broadcast live on television and the more recent Oscar Pistorius’s case. What further blurred the distinction was the presence of a real-life judge, Anna Maria Wesołowska, who happens to be a TV celebrity known for her starring role in a Polish TV court-show. The audience were also given the case files which contained all sorts of documents, from written testimonies by witnesses, police reports and psychiatric evaluations, to photographs of clothes, furniture, the murder weapon and the apartment where the murder occurred. Most importantly, they also served as the actors’ material on which they had constructed their characters and the barrister’s and prosecutor’s material on which they had built their case. All the clues played a crucial role in helping us discover what really happened on that fatal night.
The show was very long. In fact there was no telling when it was going to end as it was entirely improvised with the three actors, two judges, one prosecutor, one barrister, and an expert witness called in to assess Hamlet’s mental state, all interacting with one other according to the strict protocol of the Polish legal system. Not a single line was scripted. The actors were under extraordinary duress having to react on the spot. The lawyers did not have an easy time either. As theatre is run by a different set of rules, the audience were a bit unruly. In fact, many people left in the middle of the show, which was even more striking considering that the lights were bright and there was no music to cover their angry footsteps.
What could have provoked such negative reactions? The case was inspired by a real murder that happened in a poor part of Marseille and bore a striking resemblance to Hamlet. When adapted to Łódż and Polish reality, it worked pretty convincingly. Unfortunately, it seems that for some relocating the Danish court to a rather forsaken urban district reeking of poverty and alcohol abuse was not their idea of Hamlet, a play particularly beloved by the Polish audience. Gertrude, deprived of regal dignity, was a vulgar woman in her late forties, accidentally cracking jokes. Out of work all her life, she lived off Claudius’s dole. Hamlet clearly suffered from lack of parental care and motivation. He exhibited antisocial behaviour as a result of some serious mental issues that had never been addressed. Ophelia, an unemployed hair-dresser, appeared lost and unable to reconcile her naïve dreams with the harsh reality.
Could it be that the realism brought into the play was too much for some members of the audience to swallow? If so, then the production could be read a powerful comment on class, so fascinating to observe in the country where for years under communism everybody was per force “equal”, and the only signifier of “class” or rather “intelligentsia” was related to higher education, of which Hamlet is a paramount symbol. It seems then that in contemporary Poland Hamlet stands not only for political resistance but also education, refinement and taste, and that perhaps some members of the audience did not want to identify with the hero who instead of philosophising struggled with answering the judge’s questions and was shaking all over.
That is one possible reaction. The other one was revealed after the performance ended and we all heard that Hamlet was sentenced to 8 years in prison. This to some of us seemed a rather harsh verdict. As we were then told during a q&a session with the cast and director, Roger Bernat, Please Continue (Hamlet) had by then been performed around Europe 96 times, out of which 41 times Hamlet was acquitted and 51 times he was found guilty with the sentence varying from 8 months to up to 11 years behind bars. In conversation we the judge, prosecutor and barrister, another fascinating aspect of the production and play thus came to light. It seemed that somehow we all projected our own idea of “Hamlet” on the young actor and wished he was let free. Was it because the realism of the show alerted us to the harsh circumstances in which he grew up and made us sympathise with the young man? Or was it because his name was “Hamlet” and we had all learned to like him anyway. As the prosecutor explained, the sentence was light and the judge lenient considering someone’s life had been taken away and, as a result, someone else’s life, Ophelia’s, ruined. As we listened to their arguments, we realised that life and stage are perhaps not as similar as we had initially thought, after all…
For a thought-provoking evening, I therefore find Please Continue (Hamlet) “not guilty”.