Directed by Lars Romann Engel for HamletScenen at Kulturværftet, Elsinore, Denmark, 5 March 2014.
Review by Kiki Lindell
Arriving at Elsinore is always best by sea. On the ferry from the Swedish side of the straits, you see Kronborg Castle emerging from the mist, suspended between heaven and earth on its peninsula; an outpost of Danish soil against infection and the hand of war.
You walk from the station along the quay towards the castle, passing the enigmatic sculpture HAN; in what used to be the shipbuilding yard, there is now a culture centre, Kulturværftet, housing, among other things, two stages. It is towards the smaller of these that I am heading.
The stage turns out to be a black box, except that one side is replaced with floor-to-ceiling glass, affording spectacular views of the harbour, Kronborg Castle and the open water beyond. The room is unlit and reverberates with dancehall music; on the stage, Hamlet, in trainers and a baseball cap, is doing tricks with a basketball, every now and then playfully striking a classical Alas-poor-Yorick pose, basketball in hand.
Some two dozen young people file into the front rows of the auditorium, left empty by us oldies who have been invited to the opening of this interactive talk-show. There is no programme, but the teachers of the youngsters who are the target audience of the show (age 14-19) have had a brief with questions for discussion sent to them in advance; these have been processed in class before going to the theatre. Another set of questions will be discussed afterwards. The show will go on to visit schools all over Denmark.
The music stops and the talk-show begins, but nothing much happens. There is no ghost, no murder, no madness, no revenge tragedy. This is Hamlet as a state of mind; peeling off the layers of Shakespeare’s plot, the show reminds us that some of Hamlet’s problems are both universal and very modern. Prince H is an ordinary adolescent, asking questions (‘who am I?’) and facing challenges, some or most of which will be familiar to the other adolescents in the room – the girlfriend who fell out of love and left him stunned, heartbroken and resentful; the absent father who is sorely missed; the fussy adoring mother who suddenly becomes a completely different person, dressing and behaving like a teenager, embarrassingly high on love and totally forgetful of Prince H (he says, plaintively: ‘What do you do when both your parents check out on you all at once, in different ways?’). There is also a much-resented stepfather; reading between the
lines, we understand that unlike Claudius, this man is a little less than kin, but more than kind, though it is equally clear that H is having none of it. The colloquial Danish word H uses for him is ‘pap-far’ – ‘cardboard father’ – contemptuously stressing the artificiality of the relationship and the flat, non-solid stature of this man who tries to take the place of H’s father even though he ‘doesn’t fit into our family at all’.
As Prince H confides in us, talking about these and other subjects, he suddenly walks down into the auditorium, sits down and asks the group of youngsters directly: what can I do to cope with this, get over Ophelia and the loss of my father, forgive my mother for loving and marrying a new man? They give him sage advice: ‘You may find you need a father; put up with your step-dad, give him a chance and see what happens.’ A discussion follows, along unexpected lines; it is a strange experience, sitting there in the dark, listening to the next generation. Strange, too, that the subject of their energetic concern is a 400-year-old fictional character, escaped from the pages of a play. This is Denmark, and Hamlet is theirs – a cultural icon, who can even function like this, therapeutically, the equivalent of a teddy-bear in a child psychologist’s office. It is certainly not Hamlet as we know it, but it is a Hamlet, valiantly trying to fight windmills, pubertal mood-swings and everything that is rotten in the lives of Danish youth, using the weapon he knows best: words, words, words.