Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 6 December 2019

Theatre: 'Hamlet'... as you've never seen it before

Radical interpretation of a classic may illuminate our modern minds anew

Shakespeare's plays contain references to skin blemishes and scarring
Shakespeare's plays contain references to skin blemishes and scarring

Colm Murphy

The Dublin Theatre Festival in September is set to open with a gripping new play, a parable for the Irish crisis. It tells of a corrupt leader who presides over a national binge. A lone dissenter protests, but is dismissed as mad.

Eventually, the dissenter makes a direct challenge and the leader is ousted, but the challenge is so haphazard that the dissenter, too, is discredited. In despair, the people turn to a foreign force to lead them towards slow recovery.

Actually, I lied a little there. The play isn't quite new. It's called Hamlet and it's 413 years old – though this version is relatively new, dating from 2008.

It comes from Berlin, from the famous Schaubühne Theatre, and is directed by Thomas Ostermeier, a leading, radical voice in German theatre (his production of Hedda Gabler was a sell-out in Dublin in 2006).

Hamlet is the longest of Shakespeare's plays and his most famous; it is, perhaps, the best known work in English after the King James Bible. Whatever the reason is, it's certainly not the plot. "It's a complete mess," Ostermeier has said. "It's much too long, too many plots. It's not a well-made play. It's the worst-made play." (He added – "but genius").

On paper, though, the plot is rather good: Hamlet is a revenge play, the story of a prince who seeks to revenge the murder of his father, the king, by his uncle, who has taken the throne. This story was already popular with Shakespeare's audience: it had reached them via an earlier version of the play (author unknown), who had taken it from a French collection of stories based on a 12th century chronicle, Amleth, by Saxo the Gramarian, who took it from Danish folklore.

In this story, the new king knew the prince would seek revenge, and so the prince feigned madness to convince the king that he was not capable of enacting the revenge. Hamlet/Amleth's madness was a key plot device: would the king see through it? Would Hamlet manage to sustain it until he got the opportunity to strike at the king?

Shakespeare, though, took this perfectly good plot and destroyed it. Shakespeare's Hamlet learns of the murder from the ghost of his father, who demands revenge. But Hamlet prevaricates. He fears the ghost could be a trick of the devil, so he feigns madness while he plays for time and suffers something like a nervous breakdown. He fails to plan a coherent revenge and the play ends in a bloodbath.

Hamlet's madness becomes, not a plot device, but the plot itself. "Is Hamlet really mad, or just acting?" is the key question students ask of the play. (A more contemporary question is to ask if Hamlet is clinically depressive).

The most famous moment in the play is not one of action, but of morbid self-reflection: 'To be or not to be.' This is what, in the 20th century, would be called 'existential angst' (or self-obsession). This was Shakespeare's radical literary innovation, and it is why Hamlet is so popular still today: Shakespeare anticipated, or invented, the modern condition.

As a parable for Ireland today, it offers not much hope, but perhaps some insight. Hamlet may offer a romantic model of the independent thinker, but he is no model for a politician. Elsinore, meanwhile, offers a model of the polity corrupted – a prototype for the Washington of House of Cards. As the Schaubühne's literature puts it, the play is an "analysis of the intellectual dilemma between complex thinking and political action" – a dilemma in which this country is still very much mired.

Ostermeier's version (with six actors, a set mired in mud, and a punkish aesthetic) is likely to upset purists and entertain punters (you can look it up on YouTube). It may also provide some enlightenment for our modern condition.

Hamlet is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, September 25-27. See www.dublintheatrefestival.com.

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