HAMLET (Meno Fortas, Lithuania)

The publicity assured us that the director, Eimuntas Nekrošius, and the production were ‘legendary’ and that this Hamlet had toured the world to great acclaim since it was first performed in 1997, becoming ‘one of the most successful and important productions of a Shakespeare play not just in Lithuania, or Europe, but throughout the world’.  It was, frankly, hard to see why, and I don’t think it was just the cold rainy circumstances of the Sunday evening performance.

Having edited Hamlet for the Arden Shakespeare series (2006), I’ve seen a large number of productions of the play, including many in foreign languages, and I don’t think I have particularly conservative or ‘academic’ views about the play.  One of my favourite productions in recent years was in fact the Kupenga Kwa Hamlet, a two-man version of the First Quarto, performed by the Zimbabwean theatre company called Two Gents (who appropriately, and delightfully, offered Two Gentlemen of Verona to this season).  It was fresh, imaginative, funny and moving.  The Lithuanian Hamlet had none of these qualities.  It was the only production out of eight I’ve seen in this season that failed to hold the attention of the audience.  The actors behaved as if they were in a proscenium arch theatre and did not even try to make use of the unique relationship to the audience available at the Globe; they seemed to me hysterical and declamatory.  Their production took a kaleidoscopic approach to the play: throw all the pieces up in the air and let them fall how they will.  Props seemed arbitrary and self-indulgent: enormous glass goblets (admittedly quite striking), a block of ice, an outsized pipe for Ophelia to smoke.  The rationale for any of this was unclear.

A leading feature of the production is its immense, though strangely cheerless, self-satisfaction. Floating around, given the use of fur, is some sort of reference to shamanism, and possibly to the early works of Joseph Beuys (who had earned their use).  Less clear is where the repertoire of physical movement comes from, notably the arbitrary stamping and jumping.  Movement in general is made very ugly, of course deliberately so.  One notable exception to the ‘Distort, distort!’ aesthetic is the music, which in its sombre, mournful way would grace a better production.  Needless to say, Hamlet as a mourning play is antithetical to Nekrošius’s vision.  Indeed, the villain of the play turns out to be Hamlet’s father, who hurtles around throughout the action and ends it with a great, very theatrical, howl of anguish:  it is he who has destroyed his son.  Unfortunately, you can’t pull a Big Heartrending Howl out of a hat if you’ve systematically drained the play of emotion earlier.

To be fair, I should report that the production was received rapturously by the audience.  Presumably Nekrošius has succeeded in imposing himself as, to borrow the Japanese term, a Living National Treasure.

Professor Ann Thompson
Professor of English, Department of English  
King’s College London