Hamlet directed by K.D. Schmidt for the Mainz State Theatre, Mainz, Germany. March 13, 2019 And A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Hilmar Jónsson for the National Theatre of Iceland, Reykjavík, Iceland. March 16, 2019.
Reviewed by Justin B. Hopkins
I went on holiday to Germany, with a long layover in Iceland on the way home. Setting out, I had no plans to attend any Shakespeare, but my spouse serendipitously found a Hamlet playing in Mainz and a Midsummer Night’s Dream (Jónsmessunaetur Draumur) in Reykjavík—how could we resist?
I want to share some reflections on the productions, but given my lack of fluency in either German or Icelandic, and the fact that I was on vacation, I want to keep it casual. I offer the following few theatrical snippets or “snapshots,” as it were, vignettes from my vacation, arranged loosely according to theme.
Midsummer’s elaborate set depicted an upscale, mid-to-late-ish twentieth century hotel, complete with grand staircase, two tiers of balconies, and working elevator (or lift). Also, it was all built on a turntable. The turntable began to revolve during the shift from Athens to the woods and continued through much of the rest of the play. I liked how it evoked the instability of the world, especially during Titania’s speech about disrupted seasons. I also enjoyed how the moving set was used during the various lovers’ pursuits, especially Helena’s chasing of Demetrius through the hotel’s revolving door while the entire hotel was itself spinning.
In Mainz, Hamlet happened almost entirely on a narrow strip of stage containing nine mismatched chairs, a makeup table and mirror, film lights, and various props (crowns, swords, a cross, a shopping cart). The curtain rose to reveal the masked cast (a variety of visages: commedia clown, porcelain doll, skull) in a straight line. They stepped forward, now in front of the lowering curtain. A grid of thirty television screens squared on a scaffold in the center lit up and flashed a wild montage (cats, foot[soccer]balls, BMWs, a woman applying moisturizer, Trump) while the cast danced in place to loud, electronic music. This disorienting display prepared us for the deconstructed, tech-heavy, symbol-saturated production that followed.
I know no Icelandic at all, so I couldn’t understand what Puck was saying, yet at one moment I (think I) knew exactly what he was saying. Responding to Oberon’s command, the subordinate spirit said something. Then said it again, Then said it again, slightly differently, and with what sounded an awful lot like “Tartar.” Safe to guess he was saying: “I go, I go—look how I go,/Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow (3.2.100-101). But then Puck paused for a moment, as if contemplating, and, turning and shrugging, said something else, which I could neither understand, nor place in Shakespeare’s script, where the next line is Oberon’s. However, since Puck walked straight to the on-stage elevator, I’d guess it was something along the lines of “I’ll take the lift.” Whatever the case, the audience roared with laughter. I chuckled along, delighted to decipher the translation (incidentally, done by Pórarinn Eldjárn)—part of the fun of attending Shakespeare in another language.
Because English has a closer relationship to German than Icelandic, I was able to catch a bit more of August Wilhelm Schlegel’s translation. For example, I (think I) could tell that they moved some of the “O that this too, too solid [sullied?] flesh” (1.2.125) speech to the very beginning (completely cutting 1.1). How could I tell? I was pretty sure I heard the German for “garden”—“garten”—as in “’Tis an unweeded garden” (1.2.135), and then when 1.2 came around, Hamlet had very little to say between the court’s exit and Horatio’s entrance. More interestingly, in Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia, I was confident I caught the German word for love—“liebe”—though it was Ophelia who said it. This caught me off guard, since Ophelia does not use the word in the original English script; she only responds to Hamlet’s dissembling: “I did love you once…I loved you not” (3.1.116-120). Also, although I wouldn’t swear to it, it sounded like Ophelia said “ich liebe dich,” using the present rather than the past tense. That intriguing interpretation would be consistent with Paulina Jolande Alpen’s portrayal of Ophelia.
Next, surprising moments.
Titania’s lullaby was more aphrodisiac than soporific. On an upstage balcony, Helena sang Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” swaying sensuously, while below and center stage, surrounded by writhing fairies and bathed by red light, Titania and the Indian Boy copulated. I’ve never seen Midsummer’s Indian Boy portrayed so explicitly and emphatically as an object of erotic desire. Tall and muscular, his physique was accentuated by his costume: S&M-style leather strips, complete with muzzle and harness. He and the fairy queen grinded against each other while the other sprites grasped at them. All the while, Helena moaned (I assume, since it was in Icelandic): “You give me fever when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight.”
Guildenstern was a sock puppet. Yes, you read that correctly. Perusing the programme, I noticed that there was only one actor playing both Rosencrantz und Guildenstern. My spouse jokingly suggested there might be a puppet involved, but we were both astonished when Rosencrantz did indeed strip off his sock, popped it on his hand, and adopted a squeaky voice to speak to Hamlet. Apparently this was an established aspect of their relationship, since the Prince promptly followed suit to carry on the conversation.
As far as I could tell, Puck pronounced the penultimate blessings assigned in the script to Oberon and Titania. He spoke the lines while the actors playing fairy king and queen were occupied making the transformation back to Theseus and Hippolyta for the post-wedding entertainment. But after the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, and before Puck’s playful epilogue, there were several vigorous renditions of pop songs from the past 20 years, including Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
More appropriately tragically, following an unusually acrobatic duel—the fencing framed with tumbling, tripping, jumping, tossing foils, and even flipping Laertes head over heels—Hamlet walked slowly to Claudius, stabbed him in the gut without comment. No need for this false Dane to drink anything. The Prince sat center stage to die, while Horatio mournfully spoke his requiem.
Tying it up, again loosely, with audience response.
In Reykjavik, given the average age of inclining rather beyond three score, I was impressed by how bold the production seemed, and how enthusiastic the response was. It’s a stereotype, I know, but I tend to expect older audiences to prefer traditional, conventional approaches, and I would not have guessed the graphic sexuality and the bizarre pop-musical conclusion would receive such strong affirmation—it received a standing ovation.
The audience in Mainz, on the other hand, was full of people closer to their teens—I suspect most were university students—and their reactions were more subdued, or at least less audible. They laughed at the only English spoken during the production: Hamlet’s halting delivery of a blue joke before The Mousetrap: “Better for a boy to meet a girl in the park than park the meat in a girl.” They laughed at The Mousetrap itself: the play-within-a-play was cleverly adapted to a video game with 1990s style graphics and sound effects, and with “cut scenes” that illustrated the murder, re-committed by Claudius, who held the controller. But by and large, they were quiet, and while they applauded at the end, most stayed firmly seated.
While I’ve attended Shakespeare in translation many times, those productions have almost always been on tour. To attend a performance in its cultural and linguistic home is different, somehow, and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience it.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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