Hamlet, directed by Kemal Aydoğan and translated by Onur Ünsal and Emre Adıyaman at the Moda Sahnesi Theatre, Istanbul, Turkey
Reviewed by Anna Carleton Forrester, University of Georgia
One does not have to be well-versed in Turkish or in Shakespeare to appreciate the intention and artistry behind Kemal Aydoğan’s Hamlet of the Moda Sahnesi theatre in Istanbul. Before the play’s beginning, the exposed stage of the büyük salon allows time to study seven upright caskets lining the back of the playing space; each is dressed in words, sketchings, or items that belong to a prescribed character, three of which are doubled to total ten in performance. When attention shifts to the actors as they take the stage, it is not the famous question—“Orada kim var?” (“Who’s there?”)—that marks the start of this Hamlet, but a prolonged silence as the new King and his court await the young Prince’s painstakingly quiet, lengthy descent from the stalls. In this case, the play begins just as it ends—in sessizlik (silence) and a haunting reminder of the deaths to come.
Like in the style of Trevor Nunn’s 1976 Macbeth—where actors sat surrounding a circular playing space on stools and beer crates throughout the performance—here too the company is ever-present. If the players are not directly (or even indirectly) engaged in the central action, they are still seated and visible within it. In addition to functioning like a locker—storing swords, daggers, wine chalices, and, where necessary, clothing to assume another character—the coffins are, of course, deeply symbolic. Not only do they foreshadow the deaths of the individuals that inhabit them, but the markings seem to reflect what, exactly, sends them to their grave; a single word, a single identifier is positioned on each like an epitaph on the head of a tombstone.
As in the background of the image above, from left to right the first casket is assigned to Hamlet and marked with the word utopya (utopia). Throughout the performance, Hamlet both carries and, when in his stall, often reads a book by the same name (presumably Thomas More’s). This identifier and the performance along with it, then, suggest that Hamlet’s downfall is motivated by a desire to create a world in which his father is redeemed, justice is reached, and he is reunited with his father in death. The second casket is the resting place for both Horatio and Rozencrantz. A line at its head divides their respective words, felesfe (philosophy) for the former, and görev (duty, assignment) for the latter. While Horatio’s philosophical penchants may not be a surprise, what is most poignant is the suggestion that those preoccupations are eventually fatal for him. At the play’s end, no Fortinbras comes to signal a shift in power; only Horatio has not suffered a deadly blow, and, despite being alive, his attendance among the other occupied caskets at the play’s end suggests an imminent and similar fate. That the death of Rozencrantz is credited to a duty does not come as a surprise, nor does its additional assignment to the character of Guildenstern. Their mission is one and the same—conspiring with Gertrude and Claudius to spy on the young Prince—and Hamlet’s recognition of that meddling results in a shared fate.
In addition to an exaggerated intimacy between the two lovers, the conspiring of Gertrude and Claudius against Hamlet is made explicit in this performance, which, perhaps, is intended to evoke greater satisfaction upon their death. Gertrude embodies and performs the word assigned to her grave, şehvet (lust)—often hanging upon Claudius, kissing him, and simulating sexual activity—and Claudius, a man of ihtiras (desire, passion) embraces it publicly. He is also demonstrative in his desire for power, and wears the marks of a corrupt ruler: at the sight of the death-by-poison of the Oyuncu kral (the dumb-play king)—which, should be noted, is poured by Hamlet—he becomes visibly distraught by the simulation and recoils; in the chaos of the sword match between Laertes and Hamlet, he allows Gertrude to drink the poisoned wine intended for the latter without interference, presumably to refrain from revealing his attempts to murder him; and his blue pin-striped blazer resembles the one Trinculo discards in the theatre’s performance of Fırtına (The Tempest), there intended to resemble the one often worn by Turkey’s president during elections (for a discussion on that performance, click here).
Not unlike Claudius in his twisted morals is Polonius, who demonstrably fluctuates between fits of sincerity and aggression. Ahlak (morals, ethics) is posited atop the grave of Polonius, who seems interested in testing the emotional and ethical boundaries of himself and others; preoccupied by Ophelia’s involvement with Hamlet, Polonius first exhibits careful concern for his daughter before moving towards physical and emotional abuse; and it is his intrigue towards evaluating Hamlet’s own condition and conduct that results in the attack on his own. We can read Ophelia’s own descent into madness then as at least partially motivated by the volatility of her father, in addition, of course, to the ones of Hamlet. Her suicide is at once explicit and symbolic; as she drowns herself in a pail of her crumpled, unfinished writings about her place in the world, it is her preoccupations of itaat (submission, obedience) towards her father, Laertes, and Hamlet that bring about her death. Eager to avenge his own father’s murder — and exert rage at the death of his sister, which he is present for — Laertes, in this performance, functions as a kind of parallel of Hamlet, as it is his hırs (greed, ambition) that sends him to his grave.
What is perhaps the most successful aspect of this production is that the complex space of mortality in Hamlet is brought to the performative foreground: the space of life is also that of death; off-stage is on; ghosts linger, bodies meet their end, maintain that end visibly, and even those that endure a fatal blow outside the grave reach their caskets before a final breath. While we should appreciate the representational connectivity between character, internal conflict, and art in this performance, we should perhaps also be reminded that characters in Hamlet, especially, are always more complex than they are one-dimensional. In this case, utopian fantasies, prescribed duties, philosophical preoccupations, lustful desires, obedience, ethical hang-ups, or lofty ambitions shouldn’t be the only lens through which we approach these characters, or contemplate their tragic ends. For in the decision to understand them in the context of only one thing, we run the risk of taking Hamlet’s final declaration of sessizlik seriously, and altogether foreclosing the possibility that they are anything more.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, please visit: https://www.modasahnesi.com/firtina