Mokhallad, for Romeo & Julia your specific starting point was a photograph of a bombed and burnt-out car which belonged to a couple that lived in the neighbourhood where you grew up in Baghdad. The car became the object at the centre of your production. What is the personal story behind the Hamlet Symphony?
This time it’s a very personal story. In 2009, by which time I was already in Belgium, I received the news that my father had died. At that stage my papers weren’t in order so I couldn’t return for the funeral. Even now I still can’t go to his grave because he was buried in Syria, where my family fled because of the terrible situation in Iraq. And now Syria is much too dangerous to visit. I only have a few photographs of his grave. You want to go to a person’s grave to speak to that person. I haven’t been able to do that yet. I remember that every night in the weeks after my father’s death I dreamed about him. He talked to me as if he was still alive. My decision to stage Hamlet probably has to do with the conversation I still haven’t had with my father. In the play I link my personal story to the universal story of Hamlet.
In Romeo & Julia you only kept the love theme and the script is a collage of excerpts from poems and other texts about love. In Hamlet Symphony do you again deviate as far from the story Shakespeare tells in his play?
My ideas about exactly where I want to go with the text are not that far advanced as yet. Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius and Gertrude will of course have their place in the play. A number of images are dancing around in my head. I see the staging as a sort of dream. Hamlet who dreams and at the same time stages his dream. He tries to find a solution to his problem through his dream. I remember my mother used to have a book which explained dreams as symbols of something. When we told her a dream, she immediately attached a meaning to it. Hamlet goes through an analysis in his dream: to be or not to be is the crux of that analysis. For me those words also allude to the situation of the migrant. When a migrant finds himself in a new world, he has doubts about everything. After his father’s death, Hamlet found himself in a new and unfamiliar world.
In the title of your adaptation you refer explicitly to music. You call the play Hamlet Symphony. Why?
Hamlet is packed with themes: revenge, doubt, fear, madness, murder, etc. I see them as the instruments on which the symphony is played. Hamlet is a sort of conductor. You can interpret that literally too. Just as in Shakespeare’s play he has a group of actors stage a play to reveal the truth, so too in my version he conducts a group of street musicians to perform a symphony of pain. I am fascinated by the instruments street musicians use: they are not there to play good music, but to help the musician survive. That gives them authenticity. The image of Hamlet conducting an orchestra of street musicians from different cultures also ties in with my idea of the play as a fantasy world.
The music is a metaphor but also very much present in the play, isn’t it?
That’s right. However the symphony doesn’t sound right. The instruments are too old. There are too many themes swimming around in Hamlet’s head. Hamlet is confused. I see him sitting in a little boat in the middle of the desert, waiting for the water that will carry him away. Or to use a different image: Hamlet looks for a frame for his painting. He wants to understand what is happening in his life. He tries to get a grip on it. His attempt is the play. In my imagination my play is a cross between an installation, a concert and a stage play. I see Hamlet as an artist. He looks for truth through art. Another image that is in my head is that of the dancing dervish: the world doesn’t turn around him, but it is he who turns. In turning, the dancer opens his mind to a force, an external insight. Hamlet also undergoes that transformation: at a certain point he decides not to wait any longer, but to take action and he sets off in search of the truth.
Interview by Erwin Jans