Blog | Theatre

Schaubuehne Berlin: Hamlet

. 3 min read

Hamlet in the production by Thomas Ostermeier and the Schaubuehne Berlin is one of the best theatre performances I have seen in recent years. The company tours regularly with the piece and if you've got a chance to see it I can highly recommend it.

I had heard and read much about it, but unfortunately I was unable to go and see it when the company was in Amsterdam last December, so I waited for an opportunity to fly up and down to Berlin. Yes I know, this is one of the advantages of living in Europe.

In Thomas Ostermeier and Marius von Mayenburg's adaptation Hamlet opens with what is probably the most famous soliloquy in theatre, the first lines of "To be or not to be". The same lines return in Act 2 as well as in its usual place in Act 3. This dramaturgic intervention has the benefit of showing how the same words can have different connotations depending on the context in which they are placed.

The stage is divided into two halves by a beaded curtain, which can move up and down the stage. Part of the stage is covered in soil, which gets littered with the remains of the banquet as the performance progresses. The curtain doubles as a screen on which live video footage is projected. This intervention is really quite simple but it works on multiple levels. It marks a division between different layers of reality, between truth and falsehood, between inside and outside.

The performance starts with the funeral of the King. One of the actors produces rain using a gardenhose, which I thought was quite brilliant, because nothing is hidden and yet you recognize the water as rain. The funeral turns into a slapstick when the gravedigger tumbles into the grave. This sets the mood for the rest of the piece.

Who is Hamlet, really? Is he a brooding intellectual, given to philosophical musings, misplaced among the materialist self-centered Danish royal court, a rebel who seeks to reveal the corruption around him, or is he a spoiled child who refuses to grow up?

In Infinite Jest, itself a reference to Hamlet, David Foster Wallace has one of his characters contemplate that "it's always seemed a little preposterous that Hamlet, for all his paralyzing doubt about everything, never once doubts the reality of the ghost. Never questions whether his own madness might not in fact be unfeigned. (..). That is, whether Hamlet might be only feigning feigning." Or to put it differently, the fact that he feigns madness doesn't mean that he isn't mad. This consideration applies perfectly to the adaptation by Thomas Ostermeier.

Thomas Ostermeier has cut out some characters and has divided the remaining cast over six actors. This results in what I thought was at least one brilliant Oedipean conflation, that of Hamlet's mother Gertrude and his girlfriend Ophelia. There are numerous other doublings or what to call them. English surtitles show Shakespeare's original text. In one scene the actors looked up to check the text. In Ostermeier's version Hamlet is also a reflection on theatre.

There's a lot more that I could say about it. For me it underlines why I think that in the age of cinema, television and the internet live theatre still matters. But to experience that you have to see it for yourself.

On two occasions an actor left the stage to enter the audience, but for once this wasn't just a gimmick, it made sense within the structure of the piece and added a new layer of meaning to the text. At other moments Hamlet directly addressed the audience, as if within the corruption around him the audience were the only people left he could trust.

As is perhaps typical of much contemporary German and Dutch theatre the actors occasionally take the opportunity to improvise. Halfway into the performance a woman left, but she had to transgress the entire auditorium in front of the stage. Lars Eidinger, who plays Hamlet and who is inevitably the star of the evening, was just in the middle of a monologue standing at the very front of the stage. He looked at her as she walked by and then wondered out loud whether she left anyone behind. An hour or so later another person left and he stopped again, asking why, why, isn't it good? It is. It is brilliant.

A  video excerpt and another video excerpt.