Hamlet: The Madness of Isolation

By Tian Nie

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is one of those shows where you either know absolutely nothing and get taken for a wild ride, or you critically analyzed it in high school and have a vaguely remembered hot take on whether or not Horatio and Hamlet were, as the youths say, banging. Either way, the show offers a good time whether performed for turn-of-the-16th-century Elizabethan peasants, or streamed through the latest tech, transporting any viewer with adequate internet access back to 2008 – to Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz’s (Theatre on Lehniner Square) premiere. A time when the coolest phones had a sliding keyboard and the iPhone was just starting to make a splash. A time when a world-wide stock market crash was just as unimaginable as a world-wide quarantine.

Times may change, but the surreal voyeurism that Hamlet offers remains a constant source of entertainment for generations. Even then, this production stands out in its rawness, stripping Hamlet down – figuratively and literally – to its dirty, bloody, bones. There is laughter, tragedy, and an unsettledness that never goes away. Front row audience beware, blood splatter imminent.

Although the original dialogue is translated into German, the physicality of the performers, combined with a visual spectacle and excellent soundscape, allows the story to come through without the need to read the subtitles closely. Director Thomas Ostermeier worked closely with translator and writer Marius von Mayenburg to create a uniquely German production that works with the sounds of the language (no verses here). Stunning moments are curated through clever projections and set design, technical elements which also test the actors to the verge of insanity. The script was ruthlessly cut and rearranged – sorry to any poor Yorick fans – yet still manages to captivate an audience for over 2.5 hours without interval. Parallels between characters are forcibly drawn to one’s attention through the use of double, triple, or even quadruple casting, as this was a small, tight cast of 6. Expected casting parallels like Ophelia (Hamlet’s unfortunate love interest) and Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s unfortunate mother) are expertly played by the same actress, Judith Rosmair. Sebastian Schwarz, who plays Horatio is seemingly nowhere yet also everywhere, acting as rain-making stagehand, actor king, and part of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duo. The only constant is Hamlet, played by Lars Eidinger, whose eyes we literally see through.

Hamlet skulks around the stage with a handheld camcorder intrusively pointing at every character, like a child playing ghost hunter. The camcorder feed is projected live onto large bead curtains that split the set between the dirt-strewn graveyard in the foreground that becomes progressively littered with garbage, and the sterile, white party table in the background that eventually becomes a blood-soaked carnage. The table occasionally bursts through the beads to bring characters into focus, before retreating behind so that conspicuous eavesdroppers may eavesdrop inconspicuously. Sound is designed with purpose, as actors interact with an onstage microphone to draw attention to who is meant to possess the attention, while personal microphones project the clarity of inner thoughts. Use of sound design and music creates unsettling, rising tension in the opening graveyard scene as all the characters stand in a tableau, watching a gravedigger wrestle with a coffin. Even music is interactable, as it can be commanded to stop and start. The fourth wall is constantly broken and built, not just by the set, but also by the characters as they walk into the audience to look for salvation. This playfulness with set and sound innovation balances the heavy emotions present within the play Hamlet, and the character Hamlet.

Eidinger fully commits himself to the role of Hamlet, and it is a sight to behold. When melancholic and sullen, he makes dead drops into piles of soil to avoid talking to people. His madness is palpable; he licks dirt off a sword. At times he is raving and obnoxious, physically assaulting answers out of those who confront him. Moods seem as prone to whiplash and unpredictability as the Australian government, with him beatboxing and rapping in English one moment, and throwing Ophelia to the ground like a ragdoll the next. His wild emotions reflect of the duplicitous nature of the people around him. He used to trust and love them – but something is rotten in the state of Denmark. His camcorder captures a mother claiming to mourn for her husband, yet she abandons her mourning colours seemingly overnight. Ophelia loved him, so he thought, until she began rejecting him. His friends were sent to spy on him. Could he even trust himself, towards the end?

His descent into pretend madness is indistinguishable from actual madness. Perhaps dark humour, like joking over Polonius’ dead body, is his way of coping. Perhaps the cognitive dissonance of wearing a bright pink Hawaiian shirt and googly eyes is his way of expressing true grief after losing Ophelia. Or perhaps he was always mad and never pretended otherwise, and it was Horatio and the audience who were fooled all along in thinking he had a plan from the start. The madness consumes Hamlet and those around him, and so nobody is laughing at the end.

All those deemed unworthy need to die, and it is the tragedy of Hamlet that there were many he deemed such. To borrow a German word, perhaps the timeless appeal of Hamlet lies in its schadenfreude; happiness at the misfortune of others. Life may be bad for us now, but at least it’s not as terrible as Hamlet’s. This macabre production may not suit everyone’s tastes but does offer itself to interesting analyses that can haunt and amuse hours after curtain call.

Schaubühne’s timely daily theatre stream provides an escape into another world, a much needed reprieve in this time of social distancing and self-isolation for days on end. Not all shows are subtitled in English, so make sure to brush up on your German.

View Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz’s daily streaming program here.

Source: Arno Declair, 2014