In our mind’s eye: Hamlet in Schaubuehne

Painting of William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays are considered a marvel because they simply refuse to surrender to a single understanding: they rebel against conventional reading and allow for layers of interpretations to unfold behind the 400-year-old lines. Hamlet, being one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, is a perfect example of this. Over the course of more than four centuries it has been staged innumerable times, and never has one had the feeling of déjà vu, of something that has been done before. It seems to be impossible to prevent fresh and new ideas from springing up. The ECLA German Intermediate group witnessed how a new, different interpretation was embodied in a modern staging of Hamlet in the Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz.

Interestingly enough, the play opened with the funeral of King Hamlet–which, as a scene, is not to be found in Shakespeare’s original text. The stage was divided in such a way that everything that happened from that point on happened literally behind and metaphorically over the dead body of the murdered king. In the original play, this is not as graphically shown as it is in this production. Nevertheless, it is one of the major feelings that contributes to the glumness and it is constantly reiterated as a moving force. Where the “modern” Hamlet would throw himself on his father’s grave and grumble his speeches of lamentation or rage, the “old” Hamlet would deliever his soliloquies in the corners of Elsinore, the cold and dark Danish castle, a place of corruption and deceit. Another peculiarity was the overlapping of characters based on psychological readings of Hamlet. The characters of Gertrude and Ophelia were intertwined in one actress. Putting them in the same person did not diminish the depiction of the two very different types of women that Gertrude and Ophelia stand for–Gertrude dismissing love for the sake of keeping her position as a queen and Ophelia devoured when reality takes hold of her naïve personality and humble submission to the “superior” characters.

It was not only the way of presenting the story that caused the awe and the loud round of applause in the end. Psychological and physical experiences were inseparable. What is understood by physical is not just seeing or hearing, as one would expect at the theatre; it affected every human sense. As if the theater had its own peculiar smell, which in a way helped the setting of the atmosphere for the play. The minimalism of the Shakespearean theatre was left behind: a number of modern props were used. Hamlet “introduced” us to the characters by literally getting into their face with a camera. These faces were then projected on a string curtain. Going beyond the surface understanding of this, throughout the play, Hamlet gradually reveals the “dark” sides of the characters by constantly “getting in their faces” and challenging them. The string curtain had a very powerful impact in the whole play: when Hamlet was not dissecting someone’s inner thoughts, it reflected objects with weird, undefined form perpetually falling down. This seemed to be a constant reiteration of the rapid disintegration of Hamlet’s world.

The play was directed by Thomas Ostermeier, and was based on a new translation of Hamlet by Marius von Mayenburg. They managed to present a coherent, modern staging of Hamlet, highly symbolic and yet easily intelligible. As far as the acting goes, the master himself had said that actors or “players”, as they were called, had the ability to “drown the stage with tears/ And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,/ Make mad the guilty and appall the free, /Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/ The very faculties of eyes and ears” (Hamlet, Act II Scene 2).

By Elena Volkanovska (’09, Macedonia)

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