Reviewed by Kiki Lindell, Lund, Sweden
In the autumn of 2016, the first and last Shakespeare productions I saw here in Sweden represented extremes, both age- and sizewise. One was a two-hander, performed by actors who were 82 and 73 respectively, while the other was a bustling, vivacious student-theatre production, bursting at the seams with actors and ideas. Both were essentially tragedies, but in very different ways – one elegiac and private, the other public, loud, inquisitive, firmly rooted in the concerns of the state.
The two-hander was, perhaps surprisingly (in view of the age of the actors), Romeo and Juliet, in a production which toured Sweden in September, playing to capacity audiences. (Slipping into my seat at the very last minute, I could not help noticing that the audience was strongly female-dominated, and that virtually everyone except me had white hair – circumstances that I attributed to the fact that Romeo was played by Sven Wollter, whose reputation as ‘Sweden’s sexiest man’ has lasted for forty-odd years.)
In addition to the two actors, an on-stage Renaissance ensemble provided us both with mood music and local colour, as well as with some flights of fancy; for instance, the sackbutt occasionally went solo and ‘played’ the Nurse, hilariously imitating the inflections of an officious voice calling from the next room.
The combination of older actors and youthful parts is less far-fetched (and, sadly, more relevant) than one might think. In a curious reversal of roles, old age, which used to command such respect in previous times (certainly in the Renaissance world of the star-crossed lovers, when the young defied parental authority at their peril), has now somehow become the ultimate weakness, a marginalising factor; old people, far from ruling the life and loves of the young, are now much more likely to have their own geriatric love in the nursing-home frowned upon by the next generation. Symptomatically, the last decade or so has seen half-a-dozen Swedish reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet with older actors, exploring old age and ageism as the impediment separating the lovers.
In this chamber production, the play was pared down to a minimum, as was the actual acting; using little more than their voices and their ability to command audience attention (finely honed throughout stage careers of more than half a century each), the actors spent much of the time simply sitting together on a bench, reciting or reading the play text from a book, and finally ‘died’, still sitting there. The sight of first one, then two, people slightly slumped on that bench – asleep, dead, play-acting? – created a silence in the audience so deep and compact it was almost tangible; perhaps we were all contemplating old age and death as the final, inevitable impediment, to love, certainly, but also to life itself.
If Romeo and Juliet thus showed us tragedy as elegy, the second production reviewed here dealt with tragedy as history repeating itself. The play was a clever Shakespearean mash-up called Out of Joint; built on the premise ‘what if Macbeth were Hamlet’s uncle?’ it explored the thematic similarities – love, lust, tyranny, regicide, regret, revenge – between these two eponymous plays, with recycled bits of just about every play in the Shakespeare canon thrown in (I was not actively counting, but clocked characters, lines and/or passages from King Lear, Julius Caesar, Richard III, The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Sonnets and Henry VI part 1 among others).
Laying bare the Lego-brick plot-elements forming certain relationships and conflicts in the plays, the ‘writers’-cum-directors had twined the storylines together, creating a handful of main characters out of many by piecing together (for instance) Macbeth, Claudius and Brutus (all murderers, given to guilt-ridden monologising). There was also Lear/Duncan/Banquo/Old Hamlet (all deposed or murdered as a result of the powerful pull of a crown), as well as the wife of Lear (who was Gertrude and became Lady Macbeth; this was a Gertrude who knew full well what her second husband had done to gain crown and queen). The result was indeed (as claimed on the Lunds Studentteater webpage) a new, surprising story made out of old stories: something which was both “a play that Shakespeare didn’t write but might have written” and “a play that Shakespeare did write but we wrote too”. The cast consisted of nine students (Swedes as well as international students), all speaking impeccable English.
Criticising this ambitious project would be curmudgeonly indeed, but if criticism had to be offered, it would perhaps be that at times, too too many ingredients were thrown into this cauldron; each idea, each new line of thought, seemed a play in itself. The writing involved vertiginously conflated scenes – the banquet scene in Macbeth morphed into Hamlet’s theatrical entertainment for Claudius and Gertrude, which in turn became the post-wedding entertainment of Theseus and Hippolyta. The play-within-the-play was provided by three characters outside the story – witches, rude mechanicals, Elsinore players, or what you will – who were our modern dragomans through the story world, speaking the only non-recycled lines in the play, holding things together, explaining and exploring concepts like tyranny and the will of the people. Above all, they showed us how man, that changeable-taffeta piece of work, so infinite in faculty, is able to be many things at once: the Lear/Duncan/Old Hamlet character was simultaneously a tyrant to some (including the Macbeth/Claudius/Brutus character), and a good king to others. He was a cruel husband to the battered wife who turned into Gertrude/Lady Macbeth, willing or at least condoning his murder; he was a very good, loving father to Hamlet (who mourned and avenged him, as Hamlet does), yet also a spectacularly bad father to another, bastard son, speaking Edmund’s lines from Lear (making Hamlet a sort of goody-two-shoes Edgar) plus those of assorted other embittered outsiders shouting their impotent ‘unfair!’ to the world. For me, there was delicious dramatic irony in seeing this ‘Edmund’, a student who caught the acting bug playing an excellent Bassanio (that golden boy whom everyone loves) in my university course-cum-production of The Merchant of Venice a year ago, now instead channelling Shylock, plus another clever rhetorician with a vengeful grudge, Richard III.
A particularly strong end scene interwove Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s great soliloquies “To be or not to be” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” – two famous arias performed in duet, by Hamlet, poised to kill, and Macbeth, ready to be killed. Ripeness is all.
In the programme, the creators expressed the hope that their thought-experiment would be able to convey “something of the pliability and flexibility of Shakespeare, his ability to be fruitfully and endlessly adapted and interpreted.” To my mind, they certainly managed to do this – but it also gladdened and reassured my heart that here was a new generation wanting to do just that. It was lovely to hear these students relish speaking the lines, rolling the words in their mouths and making them sing, sigh and echo with their young, vigorous voices. In this dark year of 2016, this seemed to strike a much-needed, hopeful note.