The Stage Deranged in the Dirt

AMSTERDAM - The show opens without the usual curtain. A square platform on the stage is covered with loose, dark earth; at the front, a metal coffin on two wooden planks over a hole that has been dug. A metal frame hangs in the background, around a screen made of gold thread. Beyond that, one can see a lit floor, a banquet table and six figures in black, walking back and forth. One holds something resembling a torch.

The lights in the theater in Amsterdam are off, and an image of a man is projected onto the gold-threaded screen. To be more exact - a mane of blond hair, a forehead, eyes and a nose. The picture is poor in quality, as if the camera was positioned very close to his face. The face begins to recite the famous "To be or not to be" monologue, in a new translation into German by Marius von Mayenburg (a playwright and dramaturge whose work "The Ugly One" has been performed at the Haifa Theater). We don't see the mouth moving with the text. The actors in the background take down the picture, hinting at the approach taken here: This is the story as Hamlet sees it in his head.

When Thomas Ostermeier became artistic director of Berlin's Schaubuehne Am Lehniner Platz theater in 1999, one of his aims was to bring classic drama to the German audience. He could not have selected a more well-known and admired work than William Shakespeare's "Hamlet." He himself directed the production, which premiered last year at the Festival d'Avignon, and is now touring Europe. I caught a performance in the new hall of the Amsterdam City Theater; this week it will play London.

When a theater director takes on a classic, especially one familiar to those who have never read or even seen it, the challenge is not only to say something new, but to be careful not to fall into the same old traps as well. Everyone knows the play contains the father of all monologues - "To be or not to be" - the question of all questions. I don't know if Ostermeier recalls how in Laurence Olivier's performance of Hamlet, shot more than 60 years ago and one of the most successful screen portrayals of Shakespeare, he is shown seated near the sea, blond and contemplative, while in a voice-over we hear him speaking the lines as if he were thinking them.

Gertrude the movie star

In Ostermeier's production, the face of Hamlet is Lars Eidinger, the only one of the six actors to play just one part. He is tall and ungainly (wearing padded clothing to appear heavier than he is), far from the typical image of the brooding and moody prince. His speech is hesitant rather than fluent, as if he is chewing the words.

The monologue ends and the show begins with the funeral of the King of Denmark, Hamlet's father; without words, with music building up to a climax. Claudius and the queen, in a white wedding dress, approach the coffin. A moving video camera accompanies them, like a paparazzo chasing celebrities. Gertrude, in a blond wig and sunglasses, is a movie star.

Claudius, brother of the late king, with a balding head and in evening attire, the faithful companion, holds one of her arms. One actor offers them black umbrellas. Another picks up a water pipe from the floor and sprays them with rain. A grotesque gravedigger tries to place the coffin in the hole, in what turns into a slapstick scene. He puts the coffin in upside down, jumps in the hole to turn it around, begins to cover it with dirt, remembers that the members of the burial party should throw in the first clumps of earth, leaps in the hole again to remove the dirt, runs around and finally hands the shovel over to the queen. In the end the coffin is covered and a mound of earth remains on the front of the stage, as if waiting for a grave stone.

At the end of the burial, the stage floor with the banquet table moves forward for the wedding feast. The queen (Judith Rosmair), in her white bridal gown and veil, takes a microphone and sings a seductive love song to her new husband. Before Claudius rises to speak, one of the actors silences the crowd with a volley of gun shots into the air. Claudius parts from Laertes, who requests permission to study in France. Polonius and Horatio eat in silence, and the video camera reveals that they are actually eating dirt. Claudius asks Hamlet to stop grieving for his father and then hugs him; when he lets him go, Hamlet collapses on the mound over his father's grave, his face in the mud. We see only his back and blond hair. When he rises, his face is covered with brown dirt and he holds a lump of earth in his hand.

Ostermeier's production speaks in sharp visual images. The earth is the subject, as well as where the action takes place. Examining the text, one discovers that this is a beloved word for Hamlet (as is the image of a mole digging in the earth, the same earth where the body is eventually buried).

While the gravedigger holding Yorick's skull has been cut from this version, the production takes place entirely in a graveyard, at the edge of a grave. In the scenes that follow, Hamlet and the character of Ophelia (played by Rosmair again, minus the blond wig, in pants and a white shirt, and later in a black dress) wallow in the brown earth, as turns sharply from the tenderness of love and lovemaking toward brutality and abuse.

The audience quickly understands that this Hamlet is not pretending to be insane; he in fact went mad a long time ago. A comedic clown who paints his face and runs around the stage, he shoots at the screen behind which Polonius is hiding and Polonius falls to his death, hanging from gold threads.

If it weren't for the scene in which Claudius confesses his crimes (lines which cannot be ignored; they are written in the play), it might be possible to think Hamlet concocted the whole story, and is forcing the Danish court to serve his madness. Perhaps both things are happening: Denmark is a prison where something is rotten, and the chief prisoner is a madman who intensifies the corruptness of life to produce a farce that ends with corpses.

Though Yorick's skull does not appear in this production, it is shown over and over on video, merging with the image of Hamlet like a kind of grotesque crown on his head. When the cameras do not show frenetic close-ups, we see black rips in the screen, as if remnants of Hamlet's noble spirit were disintegrating in front of our eyes.

Embracing slapstick

The two-and-a-half hour show is an attack on the senses, in terms of both plot and dialogue, and in the movement of the lit-stage platform, the wedding banquet table where Hamlet encounters his mother and the screen behind which Polonius hides. The platform and the screen move back and forth while we spectators keep our eyes on the screen, what is projected on it and the figures behind it.

The show does not disdain wild slapstick comedy, as seen in the play-within-the-play mounted by Hamlet and Horatio, in which Hamlet plays the queen naked from the waist up, in net stockings and high heels; this portion of the play is not faithful to the text, meter or rhyme. And when Hamlet learns he is being sent away to London, he fantasizes about Picadilly Square and Big Ben. But the duel at the end is portrayed with life-and-death seriousness. Eidinger and Stefan Stern (who plays Laertes and Rosencrantz; Robert Beyer portrays Polonius and Osrick; Urs Jucker takes on Claudius and the ghost of the father - perhaps the only acceptable doubling of roles in traditional performances) run after each other on the brown earth and land blows over and over again.

Hamlet wins out over Laertes in the end, but is wounded by the poisoned sword. He has just seen the queen swallow from the poisoned cup (a few minutes earlier we saw the same actress playing Ophelia, lying on a sheet of plastic held by two actors behind the screen, and pounding it, as the video cameras projected an image of her drowning), and sticks the sword into Claudius, who manages to raise a glass of wine in mockery before Hamlet forces him to drink from the poisoned cup as well.

Hamlet lurches toward the front of the stage with the last of his strength, the gold-threaded screen following behind; he is separated from the audience by the screen's final image: the limbs of corpses. In the background we hear Fortinbras declaring the rights to this piece of land (the earth again). Hamlet, at the edge of the stage, takes a long look at the audience and says, "The rest is silence."

I am not sure whether this is the most brilliant production of "Hamlet" I've seen; it is certainly not a complete interpretation, despite the attempt to crack open something new within the play. It was, however, an intense experience - an encounter with Hamlet's distorted world via theater that does not try to create an illusion of reality. On the contrary, this is theater that constantly reveals to the audience the means by which it is achieving its effects. Paradoxically, in this way, this production allows us to reach Hamlet's extreme situation - as he both fights with reality and is swallowed up by it, trying to survive and not dissolve, and in the end exterminating it along with himself. This is "Hamlet" in the extreme, after which there is no choice but to go back and read it again, in a blazing light, and recall the torn figures on stage that night.