Year of Shakespeare: Hamlet

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.

 

Hamlet, Meno Fortas, dir. Eimuntas Nekrošiu, 2 June 2012 at The Globe, London

By Stephen Purcell, University of Warwick

Eimuntas Nekrošius’ Hamlet (or Hamletas) is undoubtedly an important production. It has been touring the world on-and-off since 1997, winning numerous awards and attracting sustained and often enthusiastic attention from theatre scholars. In 1998, Marvin Carlson argued that Nekrošius’s ‘calculatedly nonrealistic and nonpsychological’ style and his ‘poetic use of image and sound’ positioned him as the heir to such luminary directors as Brook, Strehler and Bergman (Theatre Journal 50.2: 234).

Indeed, the production as it appeared on the stage of the Globe contained a density of visual metaphor. A large, rusty circular saw hung in the centre of the stage throughout the performance, seeming to evoke the ghost of Old Hamlet: Andius Mamontovas’ Hamlet became uncomfortably conscious of it at crucial moments (stopping short of kissing Ophelia, for example, and bowing to it), while it visibly surprised Claudius (Vytautas Rumšas) during the play-within-the-play. Hamlet spread piles of black dust on paper to give to the players as their scripts, blowing it into their faces in a highly resonant image of the ephemeral and confrontational nature of their imminent performance. During the play itself, smears of blank ink were spread from the faces of the players of the faces of the watching court.

Ice was a central motif. Towards the beginning, the Ghost (Vidas Petkevičius) presented a blindfolded Hamlet with a huge block of it; Hamlet then attempted to melt it with his breath (bringing a new literality to ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’), before smashing it into fragments to reveal a dagger inside. On his next appearance, Hamlet was sucking a shard of ice; later, the Ghost attached a chandelier of candles and ice to the circular saw, under which Hamlet delivered the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, slowly ripping apart his shirt. Both wax and water dripped onto him in an arresting image of temporality: given time, the candles and the ice would both surely disappear, and I found myself wondering which would be the first to melt away. (Both, as it happened: Claudius smashed the whole arrangement with a large pole.) By the end, Hamlet’s quest for revenge had quite literally frozen him: his dead arms were fixed immovably around a small drum, upon which the Ghost, howling in anguish, beat a slow, steady march.

There was a political dimension to the production, too. Polonius (Povilas Budrys) was an almost Chaplinesque enforcer of discipline, bullying the cast into paying suitable attention to the King. A screen towards the back of the stage provided a hiding place for the play’s frequently anonymous eavesdroppers. People in this violent and secretive police state were often little more than animals – the guards were dogs, by turns vicious and compliant, while the players were parrots, squawking meaninglessly until they were silenced as Hamlet put cloths over their heads. Hamlet himself was silenced by the same method during his ‘the play’s the thing’ speech, humorously (if also rather bleakly) suggesting that even the leading actor of a major international production is ultimately a mere ‘parrot’. Indeed, as Hamlet paused with the skull of Yorick (here signified by a coconut), the stage picture momentarily froze in self-reflexive recognition of the iconic nature of its own text.

It must be said that the version of the production performed at the Globe was a heavily compromised one. Nekrošius’ 4-hour production had been cut to almost half its original length. In a necessary concession to the nature of the Globe space, it was performed without lighting – but without the aid of spotlights and darkness, its usually intense visual imagery became rather washed-out and unfocused. (The production’s online trailer shows just how crucial lighting is to its iconography of water, fire and smoke.) Its sophisticated and intertextual use of electronic sound seemed out of keeping with the Globe’s non-technological aesthetic, and its performers made very few attempts to exploit the actor-audience relationship for which the theatre is famous.  Most problematically, the production was clearly designed for performance in an end-on configuration – its climax depended on the use of a black screen behind which the performers could disappear – and this was unworkable on the Globe’s in-the-round stage.

Since it formed the climax to a festival comprised of productions from all over the world, it may seem odd to complain that this production felt ‘imported’; but whereas most of the other productions in the festival have responded in one way or another to the idiosyncrasies of the Globe space, Nekrošius’ Hamlet felt very much like a production under the strict regulation of a remote auteur. The production was thought-provoking, and I would very much like to see it again under the sorts of conditions for which it was designed – but I remain unconvinced that tightly-controlled directors’ theatre can work at its best in the Globe space.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Listen below to an interview with the director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

 

Want to know what other audience members are saying about this performance? Scroll down to view the online debate:

 

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Author:Stephen Purcell

Stephen is Assistant Professor of Shakespeare and Performance Studies at the University of Warwick, and Artistic Director of The Pantaloons theatre company. His publications include Popular Shakespeare (Palgrave, 2009) and a handbook on Webster's The White Devil (Palgrave, 2012).
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  • Jennifer Young

    Thanks for your review Steve. I have to say that having just seen the amazing Timon of Athens a few days before, I was very excited for another play that would push the visual concept. And After having seen the trailer, I was ready to be blown away by Nekrošius’ Hamlet. But as you mentioned, dropping a tightly controlled  production onto the stage of the Globe with did not put it in its best light.  I’m not sure the problem was that the performance was so “set”, but that there was very little consideration of the playing space – for example I couldn’t help but feel that if they had set the whole thing a few feet back- it would have made a huge difference. After spending the last six weeks watching companies interact at various levels with the space, it was startling to see how removed a production could feel even with the audience all around it. The final mark of this detachment for me came at the end when the entire company only bowed directly to the front. That being said, I wish I had seen the production in its natural habitat. Some of the images, even from my view behind one of those giant metal tables on wheels, were like watching the images of the language spring to life right in front of me. Especially the “ink blowing” moment, I could see the lines jumping off the page – brilliant.

  • Paul Edmondson

    Thanks, Steve. I admired this production greatly but didn’t realise how much it had had to be abridged for the Globe to Globe Festival. It was clearly designed for a proscenium-arch space, but I was prepared not to let that bother me (too much), though it did mean that I was forced to become a groundling, since the seat I’d bought was hopeless. The music added a great deal to the overall sense this production gave of being poetry in motion: Schubert and Beethoven, I think. And the tune the piano played was repeated, rhythmically and almost tunefully, by the wonderful ensemble of six swishing fencing foils in the final scene. For me, this production was definitely a high point of the World Shakespeare Festival – so far…

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