Monday, March 30, 2009

Hamlet at the Schaubühne

When it comes to the problem of how to stage lines so famous every schoolchild knows them by heart, Thomas Ostermeier’s new production of Hamlet at the Schaubühne Berlin takes the bull by the horns: “To be or not to be” (Sein oder Nicht-sein) are the first words spoken in the play. This is the same cut-to-the-money-shot strategy recently used as an opening gambit in Michael Thalheimer’s staging of Faust I for the Deutsches Theater, and it’s a good way to deal with the “classics angst” that has turned the staging of these key plays in the repertoire into daredevil variations in search of the ultimate trump. Ostermaier’s Hamlet, though, does turn out to be rather trump-filled, particularly during the first hour of the performance, which consists of one tour-de-force set piece after another. Afterward, the tension subsides somewhat, making for an evening that is good rather than great overall, but the six actors involved all turn out magnificent performances (particularly Lars Eidinger in the title role).

Ostermeier’s Hamlet relies heavily on the video-cam technique pioneered in Germany by Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne, but Ostermeier uses the camera quite differently. Whereas Castorf is interested in hidden spaces (the actors often perform in closed boxes on stage, their performance visible only by means of the live video feed projected on large screens onstage), Ostermeier shows us the mechanisms by which people and things are made larger than life. He projects his images onto a curtain made of shiny gold chains while we simultaneously look through it to see the live action on the stage, which is set up with a long banquet table. Judith Rosmair wearing dark glasses as Gertrude looks like what she is: a woman in dark glasses; but the projected black-and-white video feed in which her hugely magnified face is grainily projected turns her into a starlet caught in the cross-hairs of the paparazzi. And so the play’s initial image of Hamlet reciting his famous monologue with his face blown up so large that just his eyes and nose fit on the screen appears a self-reflexive gesture, a comment on the hugeness of the lines themselves, which have become familiar enough to be emptied out of meaning. At climactic moments of the play, the live video feed is intercut with other images, with e.g. the image of a skull flickering in and out of the live footage of Hamlet’s face (perhaps in compensation for the fact that the Yorick scene has been omitted).

The meaning Ostermeier offers us as recompense comes in the form of dirt: the entire stage is covered in a thick layer of earth, and the first real scene of the play is a burial pantomime in which a frantic gravedigger scuffles about at cartoonish speed to get a coffin singlehandedly lowered into its grave (with lots of slapstick pratfalls) as the play’s main protagonists look on in the rain produced by a hose held aloft. The scene lasts a painfully long time and is stunningly expressive. The gravedigger starts shoveling in the dirt before remembering that the first handfuls belong to the mourners—whereupon he hops into the grave to scoop it all out again. When a languishing Gertrude drops the delicate little mourners’ trowel into the grave along with the bit of earth it holds, the gravedigger offers the other mourners a full-sized shovel instead. Characters keep returning to this dirt throughout the performance, though not in the food-fight way that would have likely ensued if it had been Christoph Marthaler doing the directing. Ostermeier’s dirt has a solemnity, a gravity to it. Characters don’t throw it around, they eat it (Hamlet in particular). The first metaphorical use of the dirt comes early on, when Claudius is chiding bereft Hamlet for his ostensibly untoward despondency after his father’s death: Claudius embraces his unresponsive nephew, and the instant he releases him,
Hamlet topples like a felled tree, face-first into the pile of dirt covering his father’s grave. This descent into dirt is what Ostermeier keeps bringing us back to—the reality of death and loss—and compared to this Claudius’s politic speech is just wind blowing by.

The actors in this production spend a lot of time face-down in things, mostly food, and generally when they show their faces afterward, they look like ghouls arisen from the dead. This Denmark is a ghost town. And although Hamlet tells Horatio (and us) quite clearly that he’s planning to feign madness, it’s hard to see this madness as make-believe. Eidinger’s performance is full of Tourette’s-like verbal tics and is utterly unsettling. When he strips down to act out the play The Mousetrap for king and queen—Hamlet and Horatio are the only performers in this staging—we see that the doughiness of his body is due to the fact that he’s wearing a heavily padded undergarment beneath his clothes. After playing the role of the queen wearing only black lace panties and thigh-high stockings, he climbs back into his fat-boy suit, asking one of the other actors to zip him up. One of the strongest scenes in the entire production is the pas de deux between Hamlet and Ophelia when Polonius forces their encounter. The scene shifts back and forth so quickly between tenderness and violence it’s truly frightening, and eventually he half-buries her.

Toward the middle of the play the pace starts to slow down, and I found myself wondering, as I watched Claudius (brilliantly played by Urs Jucker) contemplating aloud the vileness of his own fratricide, whether this entire scene couldn’t have been cut outright
with no great loss of effect. Ostermeier has created an action-packed Hamlet in which psychological processes are so effectively translated into physical ones that the actual recitation of monologues seems almost irrelevant. Cutting out a startlingly large number of scenes is a strategy that worked beautifully for Ostermeier in his staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2006 (a co-production with choreographer Constanza Macras), and he would have done well to trim Shakespeare’s play more rigorously this time as well. Though two and a half hours is not at all long for a performance of Hamlet, given the density and compression of this staging, making it leaner by half an hour would have served the production well.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Faust in Love

Theater director Michael Thalheimer of Berlin’s Deutsches Theater seems to have found his niche over the past decade: he specializes in plays about the degradation, abuse and abandonment of women. It’s a great subject. His brilliant staging of Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (2001) depicted the life of this young woman—which is systematically destroyed by a pair of hit men: a powerful prince who has the hots for her, and her father—as a triangular cage. Wedekind’s Lulu in Thalheimer's 2004 production, which came to BAM in 2007, was rife with sexual violence performed before the blank screen of a wall in the middle of the stage (see fellow director David Levine's interview with Thalheimer). And now his Faust, Part I—currently showing as part of the Berliner Festspiele—whittles down Goethe’s complex tale of Faust’s search for knowledge and earthly pleasures to his bid to get into the pants of dour schoolgirl Margarete. Mephistopheles plays the pimp, and by the end of the play little Grete is left a bloody mess, her mouth a big red smear, her eyes all bruise.

Not that the play’s considerable metaphysical freight is left by the wayside. Thalheimer is a great lover of words, and most of the play is packed with Faust-Mephisto dialogues on everything under the sun. Actors under Thalheimer’s direction, regardless of the play in question, tend to develop a palette of verbal mannerisms, you can’t help thinking of them performing their texts much as musicians perform. Tempos change, voices are pitched high or so low they almost disintegrate (in the case of Sven Lehmann’s Mephisto) into pure resonance. And the story does still focus on Faust’s quest to grasp and master the universe of worldly life. In love with Grete, he may be above all in love with the idea of exercising his will by possessing the object of his desires. Grete in this staging stands in for everything Faust hopes to grasp.

The play begins in silence: the house lights suddenly go out, and the stage lights up, showing us Faust in profile (played by Ingo Hülsmann). He stands there immobile for an unnervingly long time, the only sound the faint grating noise produced by the revolving stage behind him whose circular wall of wide black slats as high as the stage itself continues to move inexorably clockwise throughout the first part of the play as Faust is joined by Mephistopheles and their conversations begin. Eventually lights appear backstage, illuminating the space between the vertical slats and soon blinding the audience at every interstice. After an extended period of constant noise and light, it comes as a relief when a gap finally appears in the slats, baring most of the stage and revealing Grete’s tiny metal bed standing alone at the center, beneath a big luminous cross mysteriously created by the alignment of the slats. This brief interlude of respite (during which Grete, played by Regine Zimmermann, speaks of happiness and peace) is the one upbeat moment amidst the dreariness. Soon enough Faust has entered Grete’s life and she sits on her bed (in left-facing profile like Faust before her) reeling off the verses of the famous song “Grete at the Spinning Wheel,” in which she repeats over and over the words “Meine Ruhe ist hin,” (my peace is gone). There’s no spinning wheel on stage; none is needed; all its symbolic weight is already carried by the black revolving barrel of the stage (literally a wheel, spinning) that’s grated on our nerves for the play’s first half, eventually making this viewer woozy.

The repetition theme reaches its climax when Margarete asks Faust whether he believes in God. Unwilling to answer yes or no, he engages in a long beating-about-the-bush speech that is as exasperating to us as it must to poor Grete. By this point Faust’s use of discourse has come to appear the opposite of kindness and truth. Unhappy with his response, she asks him again, and he repeats the monologue verbatim, with different gestures. Is he really repeating all this garbage? She asks again, and he repeats his response—six times in all. Eventually she gives in, having at last heard enough. And the slats of the background shift enough to set the cross askew.

My favorite part of the production is the stunning performance of Mephisto by Sven Lehmann, who turns the devil into a plump lascivious boor who lifts his sweater to scratch his belly and pantomimes the most astonishing little onanistic dances: prodigiously lecherous cavorting. He appears to be the only character in the play who’s having any fun. Even Faust, his desires quenched, is kept busy learning the lesson that fulfilled desire just gives way to other itches that require scratching.
At times the production’s insistence on monotony produces boredom, and for this reason I find the staging finally less successful than, say, that of Emilia Galotti, which proceeds at a well-nigh military clip. This Faust does drag a bit, but it shows us a psychological, Nietzschean Faust that most certainly affirms (in case you had any doubts) the play’s place in the modern canon.