HAMLET (Schauspielhaus Bochum) @ Gdańsk, Poland, 2014Tragedy

  • Magdalena Cieślak

Hamlet, dir. Jan Klata, Schauspielhaus Bochum, Gdańsk, Poland, 4 October 2014.


Reviewed by Magdalena Cieślak

Hamlet, Ophelia, and the books

Hamlet, Ophelia, and the books

With Hamlet, perhaps more that with other plays, one always waits for the first words. Is it going to be “Who’s there?”, or are they going straight for Claudius’s speech? Or maybe they’ll start with Hamlet’s soliloquy? There are many possibilities. Jan Klata’s performance started with “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLABLA, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” The performance was mainly in German, and so was the beginning, but I understood and gasped. It was Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, a powerful and complex text which every now and then I like to take up with students to remind myself of how hard it is to discuss.

Hamlet with Yorik's skull

Hamlet with Yorik’s skull

It was not the first time that Klata used Müller to interpret Shakespeare. He had done a similar thing in his 2012 Titus, a co-production between Teatr Polski in Wrocław and Staatsschauspiel Dresden, recently reviewed by Aneta Mancewicz. And, as in the case of Titus, he used Müller’s text in Hamlet to make a clear statement on the when and where of the production, and also on how political it would be.

This opening’s perspective channeled what followed: from above, some hundred books fell with a loud thump. They remained on stage for the rest of the performance; people walked on them, rolled over on them, read them, and then Ophelia’s grave was made from them. To a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” Hamlet, wearing black, and the Ghost, in a white fencing suit, started dancing a robot dance, while all other cast members came in to dance as well. The music and dance were stopped by Hamlet’s screaming, and when everyone, except Hamlet, left the stage, Hamlet began once again, this time with Shakespeare’s “O that this too too solid flesh would melt.”

Klata’s production was set in a modern world, but with a certain nostalgia evoking the 80s and 90s, mainly through the soundtrack that included covers of Pink Floyd, Eurythmics, Malcolm McLaren, or U2. The geopolitical hints were more specific, recognizable in the production’s intertextual references. The Ghost was played by Marcin Czarnik, who had played Hamlet in Jan Klata’s 2004 production, H. As the Ghost, he was wearing the same costume he had been wearing as Hamlet, a white fencing suit that had been actually a trademark of H. H was performed in the Gdańsk Shipyard, in the docks and among the cranes, where the history of the 80s – the Polish Solidarity, the fall of the communist regime and the first free elections – still lives and breathes.

The use of Hamletmachine added to the intertextual weight and density of the production. The text was written in 1977-79 in East Germany and, ambiguous as it is, raised political, social, and cultural problems of its times. Quoted to open the production, Hamletmachine was used again in the scene of Ophelia’s madness. Instead of singing songs, Ophelia said: “I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep. The woman dangling from the rope. The woman with her arteries cut open. The woman with the overdose. SNOW ON HER LIPS (…)”.

Gertrude in her chamber

Gertrude in her chamber

Another text used by Klata, this time to finish the production, was a Polish poem, Zbigniew Herbert’s “Elegy of Fortinbras” (“Tren Fortynbrasa”, 1961). Fortinbras, having entered Elsinore to see the dead bodies of the royal family and to receive from Horatio the succession news, sat next to Hamlet’s dead body and had a “man to man” talk with him. The poem is essentially interpreted as an ironic reflection on state authority and responsibility. Quite fittingly for that production, the new king bluntly stated that Hamlet was “not for life”, “knew no human thing” and “didn’t even know how to breathe”. With a soldier’s honesty Fortinbras claimed the future for a more sensible and organized regime, with a sewer project, a decree on prostitutes and beggars, and a reform of the prison system.

A German play for the start, a Polish poem to finish, and an English play in German language with Polish subtitles to fill the middle, did not yet exhaust the cultural and linguistic interrelations of the production. Sometimes the characters spoke English. In the play within the play sequence, for example, Claudius commented on Hamlet’s performance in English, first offering ice-breaking comments on cultural differences between Polish and German theatrical practices, then complementing and criticizing Hamlet’s first part of the show, and finally furiously having a go at Hamlet’s artistic experiments. Claudius’s fluent English was contrasted with Gertrude’s infantile attempts to first say something in English, and then to produce some Polish words and swearwords, much to the delight of the audience.

Hamlet was made in cooperation with the Polish Institute in Düsseldorf, an institution popularising Polish culture in Germany. It is not surprising, then, that the text of Shakespeare was used in this production as a confrontational plane for cultural negotiations between Poland and Germany.

Rozencrantz and Guildenstern

Rozencrantz and Guildenstern

Klata’s Hamlet was essentially confrontational, challenging the way in which to read and perform Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Even though the characters spoke Shakespeare’s lines, they did not belong to Shakespeare’s play, but tried to stretch and bend their roles to make them new and different. Polonius, for example, was portrayed as a sports coach. Under the smart jacket he was wearing a tracksuit top, had a whistle and used it to control his children: Laertes, who practiced martial arts, and Ophelia – ballet. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia was shown as strongly sexual, indicating an S&M touch to it – in a sexual dance sequence Hamlet tied Ophelia to the railing, which she seemed to treat as a familiar ritual.

Laertes holding Ophelia's ashes copy

Laertes holding Ophelia’s ashes

One of the most daring scenes in the production was The Mousetrap. Hamlet in underwear appeared on stage in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in masks. They unfolded a large drop cloth and covered most of the stage, and Hamlet said to Gertrude and Claudius, who were sitting in the upper gallery among the audience, that he had written that play for mum and dad. As part one of his play he said the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, much to the delight of Gertrude, who was impressed that he memorized those lines, and to half encouraging and half critical comments of Claudius. Then Hamlet said that part two would be less about content and more about form. To Bach’s music, he took a huge bucket full of mud-like substance and started throwing handfuls of it at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then they all took tubes with paint of various colours and sprayed each other with it. They often made obscene gestures, and eventually took bottles with brown paint and squeezed out the paint from between their buttocks into each other’s faces. This was the point when the furious Claudius interrupted the performance: and ran down from the gallery to the stage ranting about desecration of art, about how “shit art” was passé, and how outrageous it was to do such “ScheisseKunst” to Bach’s music. The drop cloth was then wrapped up and served as Gertrude’s chamber and bed in the following scene.

Outrageous as it occasionally got, the production in fact continuously swayed between the sacred and the profane. The ending offered a return to the sublime. The duel between Hamlet and Laertes was a gracefully choreographed hand combat, and ended with the characters symbolically pulling out each other’s hearts, holding the pulsating hearts in their hands, and dying in this bloodless and non-violent, but visually disturbing way. When Fortinbras, played significantly by same actor that played the Ghost and the 2004 Hamlet, arrived, he propped up Hamlet’s dead body to a sitting position, lit two cigarettes, put one in Hamlet’s mouth, sat next to him and started to talk with the dead with the lines of Herbert’s poem. When he said “this night a star named Hamlet is born”, the roof of the theatre started opening, letting in a cold night breeze and revealing a starlit sky above.

Catharsis seems to be a forgotten word. But as the dead Hamlet and Fortinbras were sitting on stage of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre and were looking at the stars, I felt that purification through emotions is possible. Then and there, I felt it.

The duel - Hamlet, Laertes and Claudius in the back

The duel – Hamlet, Laertes and Claudius in the back

Photographs: Greg Goodale

courtesy of Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski

Magdalena Cieślak

Author: Magdalena Cieślak

Magdalena Cieślak is Assistant Professor at the Department of Studies in Drama and Pre-1800 Literature at the University of Łódź, where she teaches literature, specifically Renaissance drama, literary theory and cultural studies. She is a member of an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary academic team at the International Shakespeare Studies Centre (ISSC) whose aim is to conduct research on Shakespeare’s works and his presence in Polish and global culture. She is, with Agnieszka Rasmus, our Co-Associate Editor for Poland.