Hamlet directed by Eimuntas Nekrosius and performed by Meno Fortas, Globe to Globe Festival, 2nd June 2012: Matinee
This was a cold, wet production, and not only because it was performed on an open stage in an English June… A man came on in heavy, enormous furs, like a huge lumbering bear emerging from a wintry Northern forest. He threw back his head and revealed that he was actually two men. Freezing drops of water dripped from a chandelier made of ice attached to a round, rusting saw blade, heavy with chains. Ice turned to water, and water filled goblets as big as fish bowls. Ophelia played at fishes with her father and brother, her praying hands darting like minnows instead of remembering their orisons. In a dark production of blacks, greys, browns, blood reds and deep, deep purples, her emerald green dress stood out like pond weed in murky waters. Ophelia, the green girl.
Ophelia was fun, playful, and a little bit goofy. In fact, everyone was a little bit goofy, especially her father. I think they might all have been mad. Had the lunatics taken over the asylum?
Ultra-cool Hamlet dominated the stage like an aging rock star. But he was an aging rock-star, Lithuania’s answer to Bono! When he was first asked to play Hamlet fifteen years ago he was a young rebel. Now, perhaps, he’ll continue that tradition, with Kemble and Booth, of playing him past middle age into his twilight years…
Claudius did not have a share in the glory, nor in the audience’s empathy, as he often does in Western productions now, and his new wife was a nobody, peripheral. Gertrude never held the stage like Ophelia. I doubt if anyone ever intended her to. When Ophelia drowned, however, she showed real agency, diving into the water and swimming to her death.
The ice, smashed, melted, and dripped, staining the Globe stage like blood. A giant bird – formed from two black screens that belonged in a black box, not an open air, reconstructed Renaissance theatre – flew across the stage on a man’s back like a prehistoric harbinger of death. The Old Ghost was Young Fortinbras. The hand of anyone who touched him turned black. That ‘stain’ was passed from character to character during the play-within-the-play. When Claudius asked Hamlet how they should understand ‘The Mousetrap’, Hamlet answered ‘Metaphorically!’
It was a strange, visual stream of consciousness: images and references that I could not understand, but that I did not need to.
The actors never once looked out at the audience, or if they did, they failed to see us. It was not that they were acting to an invisible fourth wall; they were enclosed in a strange imaginary fishbowl world where they would live and die, perhaps senselessly.
Britain’s contribution to the Globe to Globe Festival was Henry V, which opened the Globe’s own summer season. However, as there was a gap of nearly a week between this performance and the two-companies-daily pattern of the previous six weeks, and because, for me at least, there was a sense that Shakespeare in English did not really count, Nekrosius’ Hamlet felt like the last play in the Globe to Globe Festival. This monumental production from Lithuania managed to both give weight to the centrality of this play in the European canon, yet to also illustrate how Shakespeare as a cultural product emigrated across the channel many years ago and took on global citizenship. Hamlet in particular seems to be most at home anywhere but here. As repeatedly illustrated in Dennis Kennedy’s pioneering edited collection of essays, Foreign Shakespeare, which was first published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this play speaks to societies in transition and trauma in a language we in England can no longer fully understand. Hamlet was banned by Stalin, and Kozintzev’s 1964 film was a savage critique of his personality cult, as well as a brave testing of the post-Stalin thaw.
But all of that was a very long time ago. Even the initial post-communist years of this production’s genesis belongs to many people’s childhood memories. For example, I was sitting next to two young Lithuanian women in the Globe. They had travelled from Manchester and Leeds, where they were living, just to see this production.
‘We’ve never been to the Globe before, but we had to see this. Hamlet performed in Lithuanian in Shakespeare’s theatre! And the director is very, very famous in our home country, you know. We think that’s him, sitting over there.’ They point to a bearded man in late middle age sitting next to a tall blonde woman. ‘I expect that’s his wife,’ one of them said, the older one. Then she paused. ‘But that’s not the only reason we came… The actor who plays Hamlet, Andrius Mamontovas, he is a huge rock-star in Lithuania.’
‘He was very big back in the early 90s,’ said the other. ‘My older sister was really into him.’
‘Not just the 90s,’ the other said. ‘He’s still famous now, and not only my age group like him. He’s like Bono! Well, he’s like Bono in Lithuania, anyway! But we came here for the Shakespeare, too, and to visit the Globe. But why did you come? And what did you think?’
See my comment (no 3, below) to see how my thoughts were confirmed, developed – and in one case (Ophelia’s death) completely changed when I watched this again on The Space.