I really didn’t expect a standing ovation from him, the elderly stranger to my left, who snoozed softly all the way through, waking up at regular intervals to check the time on his silver digital Seiko (on show so often, I couldn’t miss it). At the end, probably out of sheer relief, he shot up with the rest of the theatre.
I was awake for it all, but didn’t get up from my seat. Today, after spending most of the day thinking about what I saw and feeling compelled to write about it, I wonder why I didn’t. I had come in expecting to be moved, I think. It was Hamlet, and instead of crying I had laughed, pretty much until the very end. Also I blame a hefty portion of blame on Laurence Olivier, and on my college professors, and the RSC, and all those who made sure to hammer the ‘importance’ of texts like Hamlet into us from an early age, promoting an unhealthy reverence and a sense that this play could only ever have one tone, and would work best in tights.
Sure, we had seen the contemporary adaptations, but even then we were comfortably moved, as we thought we were supposed to be. All very respectful and very celebratory.
Last night, instead, we were invited to the sort of celebration you just know is going to get out of hand. Rising from the earth of the cemetery, a last supper-style table is laid out in all-white, and celebrations are in full swing for all. All except Prince Hamlet, who is sulking to be or not to be into his camcorder. His rage comes to a steady boil as the faces of Claudius, Gertrude and real-life audience members intermingle on the big backdrop screen.
While the set does not change over the 2.5 hours, the visuals deteriorate steadily and dramatically. Tablecloths get soiled, ripped, food and drink is spilled, red juice, and so is blood. Whatever is left to rot unsubtly spells moral and physical decay.
An ordinary, dynamic microphone is cleverly used both as its primary function (to amplify voices as would be the case at a large banquet celebration) but to also flag the introduction of different characters when played by the same cast. The proximity effect is also used to channel the otherworldly presence of the Ghost of the King. It is also the weapon in the hand of a demented Hamlet MC, who treats his audience (i.e. us) to a scratch DJ set before leading the ‘part-eee people in da haus!!!!!’ in a (frankly unrepeatable) chorus. Some people leave, and it is roundabout at this point that a woman on our row or thereabouts loses it.
‘WHAT IS THIS?!?’
I have to admit I wasn’t too sure then, but now I would probably say the most breathless, strangely enjoyable ride into madness we could ever expect to see.
There are some genius directorial touches throughout: Ophelia and Gertrude are deftly played by the same actress, in reference to Hamlet’s own expressed and latent desires. Ophelia’s incumbent death is hinted when ‘like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh’, her mind clouding over, she slowly and deliberately pours a bottle of water over her head. It is a strangely moving moment, rare in an otherwise loud and mostly farcical approach, that plays for comic effect every single line it can possibly get away with. It mostly works, although sometimes I wish they didn’t, as some nuances are drowned and silenced, ultimately sacrificed to the successful overall effect.
So anyway no, there were no tears. It was more a conflagration, a loud shock-and-awe operation that left me quietly stunned, rather than in fits of tears. When I saw Hedda Gabler by the same company at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2006, I thought they’d never stop. This is a very different production, although the use of contemporary tracks to astounding effect is still there. God Only Knows by the Beach Boys had been used to jaw-dropping effect in the finale of Hedda Gabler, in one of the finest theatrical moments I had ever witnessed. Here there is one outstanding scene when Hamlet rejoices after having tricked Claudius into confirming his murderous guilt: it involves a wild dance with a water hose to the Battles track Atlas. It perfectly captured the character’s energy release and utter joy at this twist in the tale: I think we all went a bit bonkers with him (except my seat neighbour, who was still checking his watch at this point.)
The finale, in true Schaubune style, is another standout. As tragedy strikes (we all knew it was bound to end bad) Hamlet’s brain goes into overdrive and the theatre with him. Pulsating images, increasingly loud noises, and a proscenium that physically advances all deliver a tangible sense of menace and impending doom, until it all explodes into darkness. The rest, we are told, is silence.
Hamlet runs at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre 25-27 Sept as part of Dublin Theatre Festival.