The S word
by Erwin Jans
A few years ago the Flemish playwright Paul Pourveur wrote a play with the unequivocal title Shakespeare is dead! Get over it! The message is clear: we’ve had it up to here with Shakespeare! His plays were written four hundred years ago; it is now time for more topical texts! The English theatre director Matthew Warchus must have been thinking along similar lines when he suggested a moratorium of at least ten years on the British theatre staging Shakespeare’s plays. This would make way for other writers and especially new writers and it would also create the distance we need to take a fresh and more sceptical look at Shakespeare.
Is it true that Shakespeare casts a shadow over the theatre? Is he the paragon, the reference for every playwright, the must in every repertoire?
Theatre and film director Peter Brook says of the thirty-seven plays bequeathed to us by Shakespeare: “It’s not Shakespeare’s view of the world, it’s something that actually resembles reality. Proof of this is that every word, every line, every character and every event permits not only numerous interpretations, but an infinite number. And that is the characteristic of reality … What Shakespeare wrote is not an interpretation. It is the thing itself.” Shakespeare is the thing itself!
Perhaps we should see Shakespeare as raw material for theatre-makers – as indeed theatre-makers already do. Just about everything that can be done with Shakespeare has been done. And not only in the twentieth century. Shakespeare has been adapted to ever-changing tastes and artistic insights. In the classical eighteenth century his sombre, corpse-strewn last acts were rewritten with happy endings. Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet marrying, or King Lear being reconciled with his daughters and living happily in his old age? It has all been done. During romanticism Shakespeare ‘the genius’ and ‘the force of nature’ was the model for writers like Goethe, Schiller and Victor Hugo. For some Shakespeare is ‘too large for the stage’ and the only thing you can do with him is read him as poetry. No actual staging of a Shakespearean play can ever come up to the mark.
Be this at it may, his plays continue to fascinate and attract ever new and different interpretations. As a canonized author he belongs at the centre of theatre, but his scripts are so flexible and so pliable that he pops up everywhere.
This season two Toneelhuis-makers are tackling texts by Shakespeare: Guy Cassiers is giving us MCBTH and Hamlet versus Hamlet, and Mokhallad Rasem has come up with the Hamlet Symphony. As the three titles indicate, these are fairly radical adaptations.
Guy Cassiers goes Shakespeare
So far Guy Cassiers has tended to concentrate on adapting novels (Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, Jeroen Brouwers, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf). This season he is tackling two of Shakespeare’s great tragedies: Macbeth and Hamlet. Both, however, are radical adaptations. Guy Cassiers and Dominique Pauwels have made Macbeth into a music theatre production entitled MCBTH, and Tom Lanoye has rewritten Hamlet and turned it into an idiosyncratic Hamlet vs Hamlet.
MCBTH: Macbeth or the ghost of music
Over the last few seasons Guy Cassiers has staged a striking number of productions featuring rulers. Plays like Mefisto for ever, Wolfskers and Atropa – brought together with good reason under the title Triptych of Power - , but also De man zonder eigenschappen (The Man Without Qualities) and Cassiers’ production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen are explicit analyses of the theatre of power. Guy Cassiers continues his anatomy of power in MCBTH. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and darkest plays. But at the same time Macbeth is one of the most poetic, most verbal and most imaginative figures Shakespeare created. His dramatic introspection is a razor-sharp analysis of how someone ends up on the dark side of himself, loses his way and drags a whole world along with him down the path of destruction.
MCBTH gets to the very crux of the play. By radically reducing the number of characters, Guy Cassiers concentrates on Macbeth himself and on those in his immediate vicinity: his wife Lady Macbeth, King Duncan and his rivals Banquo and Macduff. Cassiers’ adaptation gives considerable weight to the character of Macduff who undergoes as great an evolution as Macbeth. Banquo, Macduff and Macbeth become mirror images of each other, only they represent different moments in the same process.
Cassiers’ involvement in opera may well have something to do with the fact that (live) music and singing have played an increasingly important role in his plays in recent years. Composer Dominique Pauwels wrote the music and the vocals for the widely-acclaimed Bloed & rozen. Het lied van Jeanne en Gilles (Blood and Roses. The Song of Jeanne and Gilles).
In MCBTH Cassiers and Pauwels join forces again and go a step further. Here music and singing no longer just accompany the dramatic action, but become part of it. Music and singing are fellow players. They represent the constant shift between reality and hallucination, between a rational and controllable world and a world governed by the darkness of (intrinsic and extrinsic) violence. The spoken word is ‘haunted’ by the sung word. Music and song reveal a dimension that is hidden and suppressed in the spoken word. The five actors are joined by three singers and six musicians.
Thus Macbeth becomes a character suspended between two worlds. Cassiers also creates that tension by making use of the contrast between the physical presence of actors and of the materiality of the set on the one hand, and the ‘immateriality’ of the projected images on the other.
MCBTH evokes the play’s brutal poetry by means of the intense interaction between word, image and song.
Hamlet vs Hamlet: Hamlet as an adolescent caught between two stools
Guy Cassiers and Tom Lanoye continue their successful cooperation in Hamlet vs Hamlet. After Mefisto for ever, Atropa. De wraak van de vrede (Atropa. Avenging peace) and Bloed & rozen. Het lied van Jeanne en Gilles (Blood and Roses. The Song of Jeanne and Gilles) they now tackle ‘the play of plays’: Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Guy Cassiers is directing this adaptation with a cast of actors from the Toneelhuis and Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensembles in their first joint project. Hamlet is the first play in a series of four, planned for between 2014 and 2016.
Here, too, the focus is on the analysis of power, but then from the perspective of the weaker outsider. For his adaptation of Hamlet Tom Lanoye immerses himself in the psychology of adolescence. Hamlet and Ophelia are on the threshold of adulthood. Unlike characters such as Romeo and Juliet, who are still young adolescents, Hamlet is old enough to detect the Machiavellianism around him, but he still has the youthful longing for purity and fosters a desire to oppose it in principle. The resulting doubt and confusion lead to paralysis. Hamlet can no longer commit patricide, but, after the death of his father, he is forced to look on while his mother chooses not him, but a ‘new’ father, Claudius. What is painfully confusing for Hamlet is that he has to commit his ‘patricide’ – become a ‘man’ himself – by murdering the murderer of his real father. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, betrays him twice in the Freudian sense. The ‘juvenile’ Hamlet feels crushed by the world of adults. So we have a Hamlet who vacillates between self-hate and self-overestimation, between contempt for himself and contempt for the ‘impure’ world. Hence the inherently ambiguous, tormented monologues in Hamlet: cri de coeur and exorcism, accusation and adjuration.
For Cassiers and Lanoye Hamlet’s confusion has a political dimension as well as a psychological one. Hamlet is not only the perennial existentialist, questioning and looking for meaning; these days he is also an example of the European who feels confused and powerless. The globalization he strove for so eagerly, now seems to crush and destroy him. That is why Hamlet is despondent, suffers bouts of hysteria and is always indigent. He suffers from a sexuality crisis, but also from a total identity crisis.
Elsinore becomes a sort of palace of mirrors. Hamlet finds himself entangled in the webs of madness itself, but also in those of the theatricality he stages. A number of well-chosen dual roles – the actor who plays Claudius also plays the father’s ghost – add to the confusion. Hamlet is both mad and not mad, without being schizophrenic. He is a human being like us: inconsistent, complex, contradictory and ambiguous. In pursuing his ambitions and suppressing his fears, he comes face to face with himself: Hamlet vs. Hamlet.
Mokhallad Rasem goes Shakespeare
Hamlet Symphony: Hamlet as a dansing dervish
For a while now Mokhallad Rasem has been concentrating on plays by William Shakespeare. Last season he presented a Romeo and Juliet, next season he is staging his interpretation of Hamlet and the season after that it will be the turn of Macbeth. Mokhallad sees his Hamlet Symphony as a play about confusion and doubt, but also about the search for truth. In that search street musicians, broken instruments and dancing dervishes create a fantasy world.
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.