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Less Thought, More Action

Antony Tatlow

In the recent Theatre Festival, Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, according to the theatre programme, was performed in German, with surtitles, by a well-known Berlin theatre, the Schaubühne (Bühne = stage; Schau = look at). Some of the Dublin audience gave it a standing ovation; others were less impressed. What were we looking at?

Aside from the startling visual impact of this production, those surtitles projected Shakespeare’s severely cut and greatly rearranged text. For an audience without German, it must have seemed that the actors were speaking the familiar words, instead of a modern German prose version by Marius von Mayenburg. Let’s first consider this translation, before turning to the tradition of Hamlet in Germany and the nature of the performance.

Expressly made for this production in collaboration with the director, Thomas Ostermeier, the translation adapted Shakespeare’s text, selecting what served the intentions of the performance. In other words, we were not looking at Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but at a re-arranged text and plot. The translator has described how this came about. It must be gauged against the traditional understanding of the play in German culture.

From the start, Ostermeier saw Hamlet as “a fat, badly behaved, irritating child”. Shakespeare mentions a “fat” Hamlet (V.ii.287), sometimes taken literally in the modern sense, though it has been argued the Queen’s words mean that her son is “full” after eating dinner, which seems more likely. Ostermeier’s reading suits his interpretation of Hamlet’s moral failing. An “irritating child” comes from somewhere else, but well describes the Hamlet in his play. Mayenburg, therefore, says his text does not stress Hamlet’s melancholy but rather his aggressive nature. Affecting everything he says and does, this is out of sympathy with the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s text, but that was not their starting point. They could not work, Mayenburg said, from other translations or, clearly, use the original text in Germany. Shakespeare’s text has such intrinsic power that English productions concentrate, as they interpret it, on making its language clear to a modern audience.

This poses the question: which audience? Those familiar with Shakespeare’s language can follow it well enough by listening carefully. But it certainly poses difficulties for untrained listeners, more easily reached by a modern translated version. Translations do not last and Mayenburg says that English directors envy this need to retranslate, because you can then “modernise” the text and reach another audience. There is an additional problem in German which encourages retranslating which can be attributed to the difficulties of translating English iambic pentameters. German sentence structure, and longer words, result in an artificial word order unlike ordinary speech, whose effect is to further distance the play into a “literary” realm. To mitigate this and maintain the five iambic stresses, translations sometimes omit “unnecessary” words, detracting from the meaning while keeping closer to the rhythm of the verse.

Mayenburg looked to wake up the audience with what he calls “less music” and more thought. Apart from the selective nature of this translated version, the uniquely complex interweaving of meaning and “music”, and its often devastating directness, which makes Shakespeare’s language so memorable, is lost. He explains the advantages and perils of transposing the original into more easily comprehensible modern German, arguing that the loss of the poetry, anyway changed in translation, is compensated by the gain in clearer understanding. The central point, however, is that only this version enabled the director to do what he wanted with the play. In spite of some intrinsic felicities, it would not stand on its own.

For a German-speaking audience, this translation has certain advantages over earlier versions, including the Romantic translations, whose poetic effect, different from Shakespeare’s, established him as a “German” author. This production, both translation and performance, effectively demolishes that tradition. The translation, inseparable from the production, does more than transpose, it transforms Shakespeare’s play. The question is: into what, and how does the end result relate to contemporary theatre?

This is not the Hamlet which resonates, no matter how interpreted, so deeply for English speakers, but a radical rejection of conventional German ideas of the play, which uses it as a vehicle for currently fashionable theatre practices. We need to know about this context and the structure of German theatre in order to understand the director’s perspective.

After reading a whole play in 1771, Goethe said: “I stood there like a blind man given the gift of sight by some miraculous healing touch.” Fifty years later, he says Shakespeare makes the world “completely transparent”, adding that his theatre is best appreciated by closing the eyes and listening to the words, which would not suit the Schaubühne production. In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), Wilhelm performs Hamlet. Its central role in Goethe’s influential Bildungsroman, or novel of education, helped to inspire the Romantic translations, which created a German author, more performed than in England, who freed them from the restrictions of the socially dominant classical French culture, encouraging a search for what better suited their own sense of themselves. The first Shakespeare Society, founded in Weimar in 1864, is still going strong.

In a pithy phrase, the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath declared in 1844: “Hamlet ist Deutschland.” Procrastination seemed to epitomise the existential dilemma of an as yet uncreated nation with fluid borders and unable to find “its” own identity in the centre of Europe. That there is still something rotten in the state of Deutschland energises evaluations of this play.

The sensitive intellectual (Hamlet is Obama) finds action incompatible with thought, and violence will always be, in part, violence upon the self. For the satirist Ludwig Boerne (1776-1837), Hamlet lacked even the desire to act, failing to understand that knowledge must lead to action or else it will always be out of date. When he does act, he produces regressive consequences, as Brecht argued, pointing out that whatever advantage accrued to Denmark when Old Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras in a typical feudal quarrel, is nullified as Young Fortinbras seizes his opportunity and Denmark is finally invaded by foreigners.

Unlike an “English” Hamlet, who restores moral order at the cost of his life, the “German” Hamlet fails to imagine what sort of order might succeed the one he dies protecting, when change appears so necessary. In an uncertain nineteenth century German diaspora, seeking to unify a once multi-coloured patchwork of states and statelets, of kingdoms, dukedoms, electorates, principalities, prince-bishoprics, bishoprics, abbacies, margravates, landgravates and free imperial cities, the play has always been more geopolitical. The frustrations of each period are read into, rather than out of, this capacious text and then to the well-regarded director Jürgen Flimm, Deutschland ist Stammheim (the Stuttgart prison where the leaders of the Baader-Meinhof group committed suicide) and Hamlet incorporates in the “machine” he calls his body the failure of 1968. The ghost of the supposition “Hamlet is Germany,” haunts this performance too. Even Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine shows the cultural identification.

If Hamlet appears particularly German, at least to the Germans, does he also seem specially English, or Irish, or Danish? What does he stand for now: a radical postmodern scepticism of the will, a perennial struggle between utopia and history, an acknowledgement of endemic violence, or a contemporary paralytic, driven mad by his own impotence?

The play’s power stems from the reach of its language. Shakespeare’s longest play is always cut in performance, but substituting something else for this language risks another reduction, since language is more capacious than gesture. Aside from interludes woven into the plot – such as Polonius’s advice to Laertes, the graveyard clowns, the wonderful discussion with the actors – there are three separable strands in this play: personal and psychological, the traumatised son; political and social, the duty of the prince; existential and metaphysical, the scope and limitations of the human mind.

Hamlet’s “the readiness is all” is also a function of an overdetermined struggle, between reformation and counter-reformation values, between growing civic confidence and authoritarian control. He is swept backwards and forwards by all these currents in a world where nothing is as it appears, where nothing is but what is not, where certainty is nothing but an old man’s platitude. Obsessed with physical decay and putrefaction, metaphors for moral and social corruption, every encounter and representation dissembles. The play is a continuous enquiry into its own methods of representation. The language games of the comedies turn into deadly fencing matches with poisoned swords instead of words, “games” that are no longer play and whose rules are constantly changing. Hence Hamlet’s fascination with all forms of acting, for behind each mask lies another mask, and behind each representation another deceptive text.

Caught between impossible and contradictory demands, Hamlet turns into ever-shifting representations of himself, switching roles and language strategies in an instant. He becomes a sequence of possibilities, an actor of his own entanglement, who cannot distinguish what was once “himself”. Hamlet is fascinated that actors’ roles, framed by acknowledged convention, are more persuasive than anybody’s reality, which has become pure performance, grounded on nothing but interest and power. When everything becomes performance, except performance itself, then no value is certain and all knowledge is doubtful. Natural order disintegrates, is revealed as convention. Identity turns into a series of subject positions, and subjectivity becomes a question of discourse. Hamlet grapples with the intolerable thought that there may be no truth behind appearances.

To split the audience with a radical production of a play that needs no deconstructing, either subversive or productive, because it performs that service spectacularly upon itself, is an achievement of sorts. This production certainly illustrated the capacity for risk of the German Regietheater, or directors’ theatre, by doing what it wants with and to a play. There is no false modesty here. Rejecting any Romantic identification, this director finds an unacceptable facet of himself in the play’s central character, as we see in his programme note:

Hamlet has often been presented as a romantic, full of integrity in a corrupted world. I don’t think it’s that easy. I feel the need to stage Hamlet because I needed to be angry at him for his lack of action. I felt the need to violate him, to jolt him from his passivity. It has been said that, with Hamlet, the era of modern man begins, of the subject who is aware of the complexity of his actions, in a time that confronts warriors on the one hand, and thinkers and intellectuals on the other. Too much reflection inexorably entails the paralysis of action. This seems to be a very topical problem to me. We are very good at analyzing the problematic consequences of social inequity, but we never really succeed at taking action against them, politically or globally. This inactivity can make us mad, since we are aware of it and still remain impotent.

The programme note also explains the dominant tone of the production. As he grows older, Ostermeier believes, with Artaud, that Hamlet is “at the very heart” of a confrontation with death, which is the purpose of theatre. The supposedly cathartic demonstration of violence and cruelty raises the old question: does this purge a secret desire for them or inure us to their reality? Seeing here the moral paralysis of his own generation, the director punishes Hamlet for it. In Shakespeare’s text, Hamlet tells the Queen he is but mad “in craft”. This German reading changes simulated “madness” into self-torturing, self-escaping despair.

Appointed a Schaubühne director in 1999 aged thirty-two, Ostermeier wanted to build a new audience. Regarded as an enfant terrible, he said he was not interested in the over-fifty-fives. The freedom to disregard so large a number depended on the structure which, though now weakened, sustains subsidised German theatre. No English-speaking theatres, except very small ones, could do this and survive. Well aware of the irony of his situation, Ostermeier points out that the arts in Berlin alone received a public subvention in 2011 of €915 million, compared with the Arts Council grant for the whole of the United Kingdom of £573 million, and the US National Endowment for the Arts of $155m. Public money allows time to rehearse and experiment. The Schaubühne has no private funding.

Ostermeier argues that productions of classic plays from Shakespeare through to Ibsen, not oriented on present social reality but on previous performances, are out of date since their bourgeois subjects are no longer self-determining. Without common goals and truths, multi-media post-dramatic performance presents a fragmented reality in which political responsibility and individual guilt are no longer determinable. He calls this “capitalist realism”, which suits neoliberal doctrine, compared with the earlier socialist realism. During the last thirty years, the classical repertoire’s post-Brechtian performance lost contact with social reality due to an essentially aesthetic focus. The same strictures apply to self-referential acting, which he calls “the centre” of the problem. Theatre, in other words, has been inward-looking, oriented primarily on perpetuating itself.

His Hamlet tells another story from Shakespeare’s, not an emotionally complex tale of revenge and a struggle to restore moral order, but the effect of failure to do so because it has become impossible to “put it right”. To this extent, his Hamlet, for all that it trashes Shakespeare, is a provocative, modern political play, affected by Sarah Kane’s work, of which she said, “What I can do is put people through an intense experience. Maybe in a small way from that you can change things.” In this sense it can be seen, like hers, as “a quest for ethics”.

Compared with much post-dramatic theatre, Ostermeier argues that his reworking of classical texts is seen as conservative because it is more realist and politically energised. He speaks of “the longing for another world – that’s in Shakespeare, but it’s also in Büchner and Edward Bond and Sarah Kane.” For him: “There is a lot of Sarah Kane in everything I do ... Sarah herself put [Georg Büchner’s] Woyzeck on stage before she committed suicide. She was very much attracted to Heiner Müller, she was drawn to German classics.” To understand his Hamlet, we need to ask about this relationship with Kane and the difference between her theatre and this production.

The radical violence and foregrounded sexuality in Kane’s plays shook up German theatre. Ostermeier produced Blasted, which was more performed in Germany than in England, though Kane apparently thought the Berlin production was too literal, not metaphorical enough, and contained too much nudity. The remarkable intensity of her work and the ethical drive behind it is, to my mind, best captured not in descriptions of particular productions but in this account of meeting her by a credible witness, Harold Pinter:

What frightened me was the depth of her horror and anguish. Everyone’s aware, to varying degrees, of the cruelty of mankind, but we manage to compromise with it, put it on the shelf and not think about it for a good part of the day. But I don’t think she could do that. I think she had a vision of the world that was extremely accurate, and therefore horrific. Because the world is a fucking awful place. It’s a very beautiful place, but this species mankind is an absolute bloody disaster. The elements of sadism are astonishing. She wasn’t simply observing mankind; she was part of it. It seems to me she was talking about the violence within herself, the hatred within herself, and the depths of misery that she also suffered.

Pinter added: “I remember a line in Crave: ‘Death is my lover, and he wants to move in.’ That’s quite a line, isn’t it? She felt man’s inhumanity to man so profoundly. I believe that’s what finally killed her. She couldn’t stand the bloody thing any more.”

The compelling immediacy of Kane’s Woyzeck, unlike anything else in the dramatic repertoire, gives a sense of her effect on Ostermeier. That brilliant, short, twenty-page, unfinished play, whose unpaginated, loose-leafed manuscript was discovered almost a hundred years after Büchner’s death in 1837, is such an invitation to imaginative directing and so unique within German theatre, but it also indicates the difference between Kane’s work and Ostermeier’s Hamlet, which also has to do with the conditions of performance.

Woyzeck shaves the Captain, who tells him he is running through the world like an open razor. Performed in a tiny theatre with literally in-your-face acting, Kane’s production communicated that raw and dangerous intensity. Accounts of this performance and its preparation describe their overwhelming immediacy. Her rehearsals were extraordinarily demanding. The actors were encouraged to experience the intensity of the characters’ relationship in their own lives, as if they became what was happening in the play. The level of emotional identification went far beyond anything attempted in Stanislavsky or method acting. Driven not to act but to be something, the actors had to live the experience in an “intensified realism” which, instead of bringing experience from outside the theatre into the play in order to simulate real life better, did something like the opposite, affecting the actors’ ordinary lives as they become what is happening in the play.

Such performance seems indeed to have been “frightening and painful,” a new Jacobean in-your-face theatre, which “takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message”. The “brilliant, violent parables” of this “experiential not speculative” theatre, “changed reality”, as Bond said of Blasted, and we “respond to it or reject it and in so doing we define ourselves”.

Kane wished to immunise first herself and then an audience by confronting an extreme experience, as if we ourselves lived the event itself since, in her words, “experience engraves lessons on our hearts through suffering whereas speculation leaves us untouched”. This is certainly Artaud’s territory, though Brecht’s earlier aesthetic also advocated the creation of “fright” in the audience, without which understanding is not achievable, and to a degree also practised this within what was then possible.

What David Barnett says about post-dramatic theatre in general also extends to Ostermeier’s Hamlet. We experience a condition, rather than an action. Hamlet’s paralysis, as imagined by Ostermeier, destroys his “character” and the focus turns away from the limitless speculation of Shakespeare’s language to a visual demonstration of the hero suffering the limiting condition of madness.

Hamlet, says Ostermeier, “is not a well-made play.” That’s certainly true in a nineteenth century definition or the classic Aristotelian model. That he adds that it is also “the worst-made play” is meant as a joke. “Dramaturgically,” he continues, “it’s a complete mess. It’s much too long, too many plots. But genius.” Everybody edits it down, but Ostermeier does more. Taxed that his is a dark vision, he replied: “Yes, there is this despair, but there is this one thing that makes life supportable … and that’s humour. Beckett’s funny, Kane is funny. That’s the kind of humour I like.”

What do we see of this humour? Certainly not Beckett’s grim and bracing epigrams, nor the clownish misapprehensions, the slow-motion slapstick of Acts without Words. The humour in this Hamlet is cruder. There is, of course, a self-conscious postmodern, also linguistic, scepticism resulting from a shift in paradigms comparable to what was happening in Shakespeare’s day. The clash between authoritarian command and neoliberal economic systems, between ownership of the means of production or of the means of distribution, has persuasively demonstrated the failure of either to create an acceptable and viable economic ecology. The world is in a mess and this moral and policy vacuum is exploited by absolutist religious ideologies.

Where Hamlet, starting from an old revenge tragedy plot, once explored a crisis of responsibility, as the world of feudal reciprocities was collapsing and what would follow was far from clear, today the unimpeded development of partial systems, whose psychological and cultural expression is subjective isolation or madness, questions whether there will be any history at all instead of an unstoppable catastrophe. Here lies a point of intervention, but it is not the remit of this production.

Instead, the play becomes a chain of elongated and extemporised demonstrations of Hamlet’s descent into madness, which also creates the space for interspersed conversations in English with the audience, one of whom, invited to stand, was then abused for his appearance, reminding me of Peter Handke’s 1960s Insulting the audience (Publikumsbeschimpfung). These banal English conversational interludes included Hamlet commenting to the audience on another actor’s competence – “He’s from East Germany and I didn’t know he could speak English.”

Many in the audience found this very funny. The actor playing Hamlet kept these gags going for a while, though whether they contributed to the director’s sense of humour is another matter. Such breaks or interruptions, including modern colloquial German phrases within the translated text, turned this production into something short of the alarm, fright, or terror Artaud envisaged and Kane certainly accomplished. But something of the “hatred within herself”, which Pinter identified, has been transferred and can be sensed in Ostermeier’s production. Anything approximating the effect she achieved in truly shocking productions is, however, here dissipated within so large a theatrical space and through less focused visual confrontations.

This difference was encapsulated for me when Hamlet, slipping further into himself, performed half a head-over-heels, and in a gesture that seemed symptomatic of this production, held his bottom upwards long enough to emit a small audible fart, whereupon he rolled himself up again and grinned at the audience like a boy caught misbehaving at a children’s party.

The adaptation roughly follows the outline of the vigorously cut and rearranged plot, and six actors play the various parts. Differentiating them matters less as the performance unfolds, since Hamlet no longer distinguishes much between them or cares for what lies outside the confines of his collapsing mind.

The performance opens with a close-up of this mind, as his greatly enlarged face, speaking the first lines of the celebrated soliloquy, is projected onto a beaded curtain screen stretched across the stage. Below is a layer of black turf, which here stands for a cemetery. A hapless, unrecognisable and silent figure stumbles around in the earth, attempting to bury the coffin of the murdered king, which keeps bobbing up again. It will not lie down. The obsession with death becomes obtrusive through the accompanying, repeated, ostinato power chords. This strongly amplified, bullying, thought-deadening, industrial post-rock noise lasts as long as the repetitious, deliberately clumsy and elongated burial scene it accompanies.

On one side a man sprays water onto figures at the graveside holding umbrellas. The earth and mud of this cemetery later become the playground for dirt-streaked faces with mud-blackened tongues, drawing the audience into the squalor and moral horror of the court, externalised as physical mess, as drunken faces fall into their food or vomit onto the ground in this crime-driven, drug-fuelled world destined to destroy itself.

Like the hand-held video camera projection of Hamlet’s face, hovering over the stage on a grainy screen, speaking the first lines of “To be or not to be” from Act Three, the play moves into Hamlet’s mind. Other characters, bereft of their separate personality – Polonius is turned into an irritated, barking martinet – are reduced to what affects Hamlet, driving him from philosophical melancholy into gibbering madness, externalised through Tourette syndrome outbursts of uncontrollable cursing.

If suffering engraves lessons on our hearts where “speculation leaves us untouched”, the evisceration of this uniquely speculating text, replaced with too much improvisational acting, showed a performance narcissistically preoccupied with its own theatrical effects as it sought to both externalise and wrestle with its already conceded failure to engage with a disturbingly dysfunctional world.

Antony Tatlow is currently Honorary Professor in the TCD Drama Department, was Professor of Comparative Literature and Coordinator of the Graduate Centre for Arts Research there from 1996 to 2006 and before that Professor and Head of Comparative Literature in the University of Hong Kong. He has written about the relationship between East Asian and Western cultures mostly in respect of drama and poetry.