In Britain, we tend to take our Shakespeare as it comes. Directors who dare draw out – or worse, impose – particular concepts are best advised to round off the edges and tie up the loose ends. The warning message: please don’t feed the purists.
Thomas Ostermeier, artistic director of Berlin’s Schaubühne, eats them for breakfast. He ended A Doll’s House, seen at the Barbican in 2004, with gunshots instead of a door-slam. His Hamlet is just as wilfully inverse. It’s as if he’s making the play undergo wear-and-tear consumer testing. It’s Hamlet subjected to a thousand structural knocks.
So, on a pitch of earth – a good deal of which ends up in the performers’ mouths throughout – Hamlet’s most famous monologue, ‘To be or not to be,’ comes early on. Later he’ll skid across the stage and launch into it again as an angsty teenage tantrum. He plays The Mousetrap in panties and suspenders, obliterates the poetry with mouthfuls of party food and proffers up a well-timed fart, wafting it into the auditorium. Just as Sarah Kane twisted Hippolytus into a monster in Phaedra’s Love, Ostermeier strips Hamlet of his nobility and focuses on his faults. He turns what we accept as tragedy into a warped comedy.
There are, inevitably, losses; the largest being a sense of the emotive power of the play. It’s a hefty price to pay, but the intellectual illumination offered is revelatory enough to (just about) prove recompense. Ostermeier’s not so bothered about the story; his is a character study. It shows a Hamlet often glanced, but never before given such free reign. Lars Eidinger’s Hamlet is drama queen, spoilt brat and, um, general dick. He is the ultimate surly stepson and, for two hours and forty minutes, he throws the mother of all Oedipal wobblies.
And yet, Eidinger’s podgy Hamlet remains a figure of perverse admiration. He takes no prisoners and obliterates anything vaguely sycophantic or preening. Above all else, he is a man of action. The maudlin, dawdling Dane is nowhere in sight. If we are to hold anyone in scorn it is Laertes, a stick in the mud who so defers to the rules that he can barely strike the blow to kill Hamlet. By contrast, Hamlet goes for him with a nearby shovel.
True, Ostermeier comes close to a Hamlet without Denmark. The rest of his six-strong cast, who double inventively, are reduced to props and puppets in the cyclone. In spinning everything so furiously, Ostermeier’s approach tosses Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius and the rest aside. But that is precisely the piece’s thrill: to watch Ostermeier sink his teeth into the text and shake the carcass for his own ends. That is, perhaps, the only way to get to its heart today.