(left to right) Konrad Singer, as Laertes, Jenny König is
Gertrude, and Robert Beyer plays Polonius in Thomas Ostermeier’s Hamlet
at BAM’s Harvey Theater.
Photo Stephanie Berger
By Deirdre Donovan
How to stage Hamlet with a
Director Thomas Ostermeier may well have the answer with his German
language production of Hamlet, presented as part of
the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave festival. He simply
casts the ferocious Lars Eidinger in the titular role, and assembles
six other fine actors from the Schaubühne Berlin theater company to
round out the company. The result? A wild and wooly interpretation of
Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy.
This is not your grandmother’s Hamlet. Before the
show begins, we see a bifurcated stage, divided by a scrim-like
curtain. Upstage, there are actors, milling around a long table that
eerily looks like a double to the one in Leonardo da Vinci’s The
Last Supper. In front of this tableau, there is a closed coffin
and a large expanse of dirt, which will serve, in turn, as graveyard,
palace grounds, and courtyard at Elsinore (set design by Jan Pappelbaum).
Lars Eidinger, as Hamlet, in Thomas Ostermeier’s production
of Hamlet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Photo: Stephanie Berger
When the play proper begins, we see the face of Eidinger projected on a
giant screen (excellent video design by Sébastien Dupouey), reciting
the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Although this speech is
typically delivered at the play’s midpoint, Ostermeier has smartly
moved it up to launch the drama. Thus, we no longer listen to the familiar speech
as a clichéd set piece. We hear it as if for the first time,
heartfelt words spoken by a distraught prince.
A beat later, the lights come up (lighting by Erich Schneider) and we meet
the various denizens of Elsinore, gathered to celebrate Claudius’
(Thomas Bading) coronation ceremony: Claudius’ wife Gertrude and
young Hamlet’s mother (Jenny König), the councilor Polonius (Robert
Beyer), Hamlet’s best friend Horatio (Damir Avdic), Polonius’ son
Laertes (Konrad Singer), and Hamlet (Eidinger). Almost everybody is
seated around the table, except for Hamlet, who sullenly sits
apart. Admittedly, he’s had a lot on his mind of
late: his father’s sudden death, his Uncle Claudius’ hasty
marriage to his mother, and now uncle’s wearing of Denmark’s crown.
This modern-dress production (costume design by Nina Wetzel) takes poetic
license, and then some. It invents a burial scene for
Old King Hamlet, in which we watch the gravedigger, like a latter-day
Buster Keaton, fall over, crawl under, and finally straddle the king’s
casket before sliding it, helter-skelter, into
the earth. Indeed, Ostermeier new-fangled version
of Hamlet is of a mingled yarn, boldly mixing comedy
While Shakespeare’s Hamlet is famous for his madness, Eidinger’s Hamlet
isn’t just mad –he’s unhinged. He eats dirt,
regurgitates his food, and wanders, willy-nilly, into the
audience. Eidinger is a very physical actor and his stage
business is designed to make you laugh. Oddly, he doesn’t seem to
have a romantic molecule in his body. And his supposed
girlfriend, Ophelia, is no sooner introduced into the play’s
world that we learn she is drowned in the brook. His BFF,
Horatio, gets short shrift in Ostermeier’s version as well. Little
wonder that Eidinger’s Hamlet finds it difficult to relate to people in
Elsinore and relies on a video camera to have human connections
Ostermeier has whittled down the dramatis personae to 11 characters, with
many actors brilliantly doubling their parts. Jenny König plays both
Gertrude and Ophelia with minimal adjustments, offering
card-carrying Freudians a lot to chew on. Other actors’
doublings are more subtle: Robert Beyer performs the
loquacious Polonius and prissy Osric; Konrad Singer is the vengeful
Laertes and superficial Rosencrantz; and Damir Avdic plays the loyal
Horatio and disloyal Guildenstern.
(left to right: Thomas Bading, Lars Eidinger, and Konrad
In the Berlin Schaubühne theater company’s production of Hamlet.
Photo: Stephanie Berger
What really matters about this production of Hamlet is
that it gives Gothamites another opportunity to see Eidinger perform
in New York. The last time Eidinger crossed the Harvey
Stage was in October 2017, playing the nominal character in Richard
III. In the New York Times review of the production, critic
Ben Brantley referred to Eidinger as “a bogeyman guaranteed to haunt your
nightmares for weeks to come.” Well, five years have passed since
Eidinger tackled the psychopathic Richard. But it’s no stretch to
say that his current Hamlet outhaunts his Richard.
Spoiler alert! The Act 5 fencing match between Hamlet and
Laertes is arguably the capstone to this theater piece, a bizarre
criss-crossing of athletic grace and high jinx. But
before Singer’s Laertes and Eidinger’s Hamlet draw their swords,
Eidinger strides over the footlights and bounds up the aisle,
sitting down in an empty orchestra seat. Turning to the
audience member on his left, he bluntly asks: “Do
you fence?” “No,” answers the patron. Realizing
that he’s not going to find any last-minute substitute to fence for
him against Laertes, Eidinger stoically hoists himself up from his
borrowed seat and heads back to the stage, ready to meet his destiny.
Ostermeier’s Hamlet is a rip-roaring ride through
Hamlet’s psyche and more. The production truly belongs to
Eidinger, even though the supporting actors are just right in
their respective roles.
Unlike other productions of Hamlet, this outing isn’t
trying to be reverent or cover all the dramatic bases. But it
can bring you to the edge of your seat, make you gasp, and offer
chills that even Madame Tussauds’ Ultimate Halloween Escape couldn’t
offer. Too bad that it is breezing in and out of New York so
Through November 5th.
By William Shakespeare
German translation by Marius von Mayenburg
At BAM’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
For more information, visit www.bam.org
Running time: 2 hours: 45 minutes with one intermission.