A man holds his hand up on a muddy stage, with a sword in the foreground.

April 2, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (Schaubühne Berlin) @ Avignon Festival Theatre (webstream)

As theatres around the world shut their doors to physical customers, they’re opening their archives. The global lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 outbreak is hitting theatres hard, but it’s a gesture of goodwill and faith in the importance of theatre that institutions are making their content freely available, and it’s a gesture that I hope we can collectively repay when the doors reopen. And it’s leading to some extraordinary opportunities, as in the Schaubühne’s release – for one night only – of its legendary Hamlet, directed by Thomas Ostermeier.

Filmed in 2008 at the Avignon Festival, it’s particularly welcome a decade later to see how sophisticated a film this is, despite it coming at the very start of the live broadcasting turn. The screen broadcast works closely with the on-stage live filming, carefully framing the curtain that bisects the stage and acts as a screen so that it fills the entire frame, allowing the opening delivery of ‘To be or not to be’ to consume the picture. Hamlet’s (Lars Eidinger) visage floats over the stage as a banqueting table – which will act as locus throughout the production – looms in the background, blurring the lines from the start between Hamlet’s psyche and the showy world of Claudius’s (Urs Jucker) Denmark. And throughout the production, the camera’s fast edits and surprising reverse angles work to respectively ramp up the action and frame the company against the cavernous auditorium of the Festival Theatre, cast and camera repeatedly making offers to the live audience as part of the production’s interest in public representation.

The bravura opening sequence is a work of art in itself, as mourners gather for the funeral of Old Hamlet. On a massive stage covered in earth (designed by Jan Pappelbaum), a heavy coffin sits downstage, waiting to be interred. An actor takes a hosepipe and aims it up in the air, creating a steady rainfall that slowly starts turning the earth of the stage into mud. As the stony-faced mourners put up their umbrellas, a Gravedigger clowns desperately with the coffin, trying to lower it into the ground but slipping over, dropping the coffin, flailing desperately, before finally giving the mourners the chance to contribute their own piles of soil. The physical dexterity of the Gravedigger serves to emphasise the weightiness of the coffin (and thus Hamlet’s father) and, set to the thrilling crescendo of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls’, sets a simultaneous tone of urgency, black comedy, and horror.

This combination is evident in Eidinger’s performance as Hamlet, a physically exhausting performance to watch. Eidinger’s Hamlet is perhaps best exemplified by the moment during the wedding banquet at which, when Claudius speaks directly to him, Hamlet (without missing a beat) falls unflinchingly fact first into the soil on the stage, a perfect and fearless faceplant. It’s a gesture of abandon and despair, but also of determination. Indeed, while Claudius works throughout the wedding banquet to control the public narrative, using a hand-held microphone as he offers boons and public thanks, he comes across as twitchy and unsure (helped by his earlier pratfall in the mud as he left the funeral) next to the stolid, unmoving Hamlet. As the production goes on, the microphone passes between Claudius and Hamlet, becoming a key tool by which they attempt to impose order and interpretation on events, both in soliloquy and in public scenes.

Eidinger is a big man, and as Hamlet he wears a fat suit that increases his bulk more. Combined with his at-times frenetic physical performance (especially during the flute scene as he throws himself to the ground), he offers a dangerous and violent presence on the stage that is more unnerving than any other Hamlet I’ve seen. The violence is nasty; during the nunnery scene, he slams a heavy hand down on the shoulder of the tiny Ophelia (Judith Rosmair) so hard that the force is audible even via the recording, and as he manhandles her he pulls her top over her head, obscuring her vision and exposing her bra, before wrestling her to the ground and burying her alive within the earth of the stage. His misogynist violence is part and parcel of his destabilising presence throughout his ‘mad’ scenes, where it’s never certain quite what he might do next or is capable of, and the threat he poses to a court attempting to maintain some semblance of order – as represented by the ever-present banqueting table – is palpable. During the scene of Claudius praying, Hamlet places a plastic sheet over Claudius’s head (Claudius not responding) and then smashes red dye (ketchup?) into it; the disruption of space and time, and the violence of the action, are shocking, showing the force of Hamlet’s erupting violence clearly long before he kills Polonius (Robert Beyer). And his scream when he realises he has killed Polonius is chilling.

Much of Hamlet’s disruptive energy plays as comedy. The disruptions are sometimes linguistic, as when – talking to Rosencrantz (Stefan Stern) and Guildenstern (Sebastian Schwarz) – Hamlet switches to English while standing on the table and pretending to DJ, forcing both his erstwhile friends and then the theatre audience into an uncomfortable call and response. Later, Hamlet gets excited about the various tourist attractions of London when being banished to England, and later still he turns up at Ophelia’s funeral wearing bulging fake eyes over his own. The humour is always underpinned by his violence, however, in ways that add an edge to any laughter, as during the grotesque ‘Mousetrap’ sequence in which Hamlet himself plays a pastiche of his mother against a y-fronts wearing Player King. His control over the theatre environment extends to the camera – when he declares himself king of infinite space, the screen sharply cuts to a distant shot that frames the brightly lit stage as a tiny portion of the frame surrounded by darkness; when he considers ‘guilty people sitting at a play’ the house lights go up ominously; and when he starts wandering among the audience himself, there’s clear tension about what his disruption of that space will mean. Claudius tries to do something similar during his praying scene, walking among the audience with his microphone as if hosting a talkshow and looking for answers to his questions, but his own attempts to bring back some form of control and colonise the spaces that Hamlet has invaded are always more muted.

Claudius’s court is something of a horror show itself, underneath the veneer of civilisation. At the wedding feast, Rosmair’s noir-inflected Gertrude sings a sultry song to her new husband; but then, after Hamlet soliloquises, she stutters into slow motion and begins uttering unholy shrieks and snarls, before slowly pulling off her own wig to reveal herself as Ophelia. The transition between characters explicitly evokes horror films, giving as close an approximation as live performance allows to a human being turned inside out, and the uncanny warping resonates later as Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s madness switches into Ophelia herself. At the production’s climax, the uncanny bodies of the dead are arranged behind the banqueting table, a ghastly display of corpses poised in sharp angles, who babble words across one another in Hamlet’s direction as he stands facing them, dying (Gertrude’s frothing mouth and staring eyes as the poison takes hold is especially effective). At moments such as these, the horrors of the court are positioned as precisely the motivation for Hamlet’s extreme behaviour, as the moments when he does stand silent seem to risk overwhelming him.

The on-stage tech remediates much of the action. The Ghost is constructed through Jucker speaking directly into a camera and speaking into a microphone while a crown is placed on his head (the crown has quite the stage life throughout the production, including being dug up by Polonius at one point, and being worn upside down by Hamlet for much of his mad scenes), and the enormous curtained screen allows the Ghost to fill the stage. Hamlet doesn’t have exclusive privilege to control the onstage camera – most characters get their moments with it – but when it accompanies him to his first murder attempt on Claudius, or when he turns to it for his soliloquies, it seems to act as an extension of his thought process. But all of this remediation makes even more powerful the moment before the (thrillingly visceral) fencing match in which Hamlet turns to the audience, puts the microphone down, and speaks tiredly, honestly, brokenly to the audience.

There’s too much to discuss in this production. Hamlet’s turn as charismatic preacher, exorcising a demon from Gertrude during the closet scene, is parodic and yet reveals the violence in what he’s parodying. The iconic shot of Laertes (Stern again) holding a gun to Claudius’s head while Claudius kneels is brilliantly shot, reverse angles seeing both Claudius’s dazzled face and his silhouette against the footlights. The perversion of the condiments of the banquet table as images of viscera is darkly funny but harrowing. And the deadpan acting of Polonius as Hamlet lies his head on the corpse’s shoulder is flat-out hilarious. But perhaps the moment that will stay with me most is the final five seconds, as the babbling corpses disappear behind the curtain and are suddenly cut off, and a camera close-up on Hamlet’s face captures his final moments as he looks, sweating, at the audience, and almost whispers ‘the rest is silence’. It’s a moment of clarity and calm after two and a half hours of virtuous performance by a cast of six and a creative team at the top of their game, captured beautifully for the screen.

Thanks to those who live(ish)-tweeted along and shared their thoughts, including Pascale Aebischer, Alex Heeney, Eoin Price, Tom Rutter, Ellie Rycroft, Charlene Smith, Erin Sullivan, Oscar Toeman and others.

Posted in Theatre review