Hamlet vs Hamlet (Toneelhuis en Toneelgroep Amsterdam) @ Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, Netherlands, 2014Adaptation

  • Paul Franssen

Hamlet vs Hamlet, adapted by Tom Lanoye, directed by Guy Cassiers, Toneelhuis en Toneelgroep Amsterdam, Stadsschouwburg Utrecht, The Netherlands, 11 June 2014.

Reviewed by Paul Franssen (Utrecht University)


Picture Jan Versweyveld, showing Hamlet (Abke Haring) and Yorick’s ghost (Katelijne Damen)

Picture Jan Versweyveld, showing Hamlet (Abke Haring) and Yorick’s ghost (Katelijne Damen)

The Flemish writer Tom Lanoye is best-known for his 1997 marathon production Ten Oorlog, which compressed Shakespeare’s tetralogies of history plays into three consecutive nights of linguistic extravaganza, peppered with contemporary allusions. His Hamlet adaptation falls within the same tradition. Again Lanoye takes great liberties with the text, expanding, contracting, or changing where he sees fit. Usually his diction is of a high register, and many of his lines rhyme; but mixed in with this lofty dialogue are gross obscenities, colloquialisms, and deliberate anachronisms. The mixed Flemish/Dutch cast mostly spoke in the standard language, though some broadly comic scenes, such as the mousetrap—here a hilarious puppet show—were in broad Flemish dialect.

Among other changes, the ghost of Hamlet Senior was joined by those of Yorick and Polonius. Hamlet was played, quite creditably, by an actress, Abke Haring. Like an Elizabethan boy actor in reverse, Haring made Hamlet seem a really young boy, small and frail, shaking with emotion, walking up and down indecisively, not in command of himself. In the opening scene Hamlet stood front stage, with another figure hiding behind him. This, it emerged, was Yorick’s ghost, who played Hamlet like a marionette. Hamlet asked Yorick all kinds of questions; the ghost strove to inspire calm and confidence into the troubled hero. To that extent, Yorick replaced Horatio, who had been cut from this production. Yet Yorick also seemed to symbolise the imagination stirred up by art. He made Hamlet listen to his Father’s ghost, and took over the function of the players, single-handedly performing a medley of Shakespearean and ancient Greek classical texts. The influence of the cultural heritage on the adolescent mind, however, was ambiguous. Though it consoled Hamlet and gave him a sense of purpose, it also evoked dangerous illusions about honour and heroism.

If Hamlet stood for adolescent insecurity, middle-aged Polonius was his opposite. He roughly dismissed Laertes for his incestuous desires for Ophelia, only to make her sit on his own lap and fondle her himself once Laertes had gone. He sanctimoniously blamed his daughter for the desire she provoked in men. Honour, for Polonius, was an empty word, an excuse to get rid of his rivals.

Honour was Hamlet’s main theme. Not just his father’s death bothered him, but also, as he told his mother, the fact that he had not inherited the crown himself. ‘Your time will come’, Gertrude soothed him. Hamlet sought an outlet for his frustrated desires in war. In a variation on Shakespeare’s soliloquy ‘How all occasions . . .’ (4.4.32ff), Lanoy’s hero fastened his hopes on the fascist notion of purifying blood through battle, and asked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany him to the front. Laertes, too, had voluntarily enlisted to be away from Ophelia. Whereas the young were moved by delusions of honour, the older generation were cynical. If Polonius was a domestic tyrant, Claudius was a tyrant on a larger scale. Yet he also sounded modern: he appealed to the people as the ultimate source of his legitimacy, spoke of pacifying the financial markets, and justified murdering his brother by the nation’s need for a strong leader. Even Gertrude, shy and inept at public speaking—she does not know how to use a microphone—suggests in the closet scene that she connived at the murder of her first husband, for reasons of state.

The older generation’s cynicism combined with the misguided idealism of the young culminates in war. If international conflict in Shakespeare’s play is just the backdrop to the main plot, in this adaptation it looms larger. Laertes returns from the trenches, whose horror he describes in vivid detail. His experiences have numbed him to the sight of death, so that he unhesitatingly kills Ophelia, whose madness he cannot bear. He then murders Claudius and Gertrude, whom he holds responsible for the war; and he threatens Hamlet, whom he hates. Yet he tells him that he has swallowed poison, so as to rob Hamlet of his duel, and that he has pre-empted Hamlet’s revenge by killing Claudius, cutting off all roads to honour for Hamlet. He then implores him to shorten his suffering, and to commit suicide afterwards. This generation, after all, has failed, the war is lost, the barbarians are at the gate; there is no point in living on. Hamlet, indecisive as ever, cannot bring himself to dispatch Laertes, who dies in pain. After that, he keeps hesitating, reiterating ‘to be or not to be’; yet up to the blackout, he cannot bring himself to plant the knife in his own belly.

The abstract stage design evoked the horrors beneath the civilised surface—quite literally so, as it featured a shiny glass floor, underneath which debris was visible. The area below the glass represented the trenches and the graveyard in later scenes. After the interval, a dead tree lay on top of the glass floor, suggesting that appearances could no longer be kept up. On top of the floor, an open towering structure stood, hung with bead curtains, on which the image of Hamlet’s ghost was projected. The curtains also allowed off-stage characters to approach unseen, and eavesdrop on those on-stage. As there was no clear-cut division between on-stage and off-stage, it was unclear who overheard what—a timely comment on the modern surveillance state.

This production reminded us that 2014 is not just a commemorative year for Shakespeareans, but also the anniversary of the Great War. The older generation, including Hamlet Senior, were cynical power brokers; the young were idealists who marched off to wars instigated by the old, to find an outlet for their frustrations. For Lanoye, Hamlet is a play about the genesis of fascism; but the allusions to modern life—the eavesdropping, Claudius’s insistence on stable currencies—suggested that disastrous outcomes are not necessarily a thing of the past.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016). www.cambridge.org/9781107125612