A Hungarian Hamlet of What ifs
Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Hungarian National Theatre, directed by Robert Alföldi. Premiere March 19, 2012.
What if we give Hamlet – this undoubtedly hyper-canonized drama – an unusual look? What if we try to look at it as if it were the very first glance? What if we put aside all the interpretations about „the drama of inaction” (Howard Granville-Barker) and „Hamlet as a man of radical contradictions” (Amanda Mabillard)?
This is exactly what Róbert Alföldi did in the National Theatre of Budapest, Hungary. There is this guy, apparently our contemporary, brought up in a decent, aristocratic and well-to-do family, a guy who had gone to study abroad (quite usual a phenomenon in today’s Hungary), then called back home (via telegram or sms) to his father’s sudden death and funeral. Here he finds his mother marrying his father’s brother – and understands nothing except his world being shattered, for good.
The set is simple, yet multifunctional: the audience sits on the stage and the actors cover the entire auditorium. The fancy décor of the hall has been hidden with black foil, and on the floor there are empty bottles, cans and creased newspapers. As the auditorium has at least three different levels, it is easy to eavesdrop and to ambush unnoticed – a great dramaturgical help to the director to ravel out the backgrounds and motives of the different plot and processes.
What if the ghost of Hamlet’s father designates a clear and definite perspective to Hamlet? What if this boy knows exactly what his main job is from now on: to revenge his father’s death and to stop the building of this new, authoritarian kingdom? Hamlet is determined and disciplined, and smart enough to keep his secret plot to himself.
And this is why he has to detach himself from Ophelia, this smart girl worth his love and admiration, but also an obedient daughter of her father Polonius. And Polonius is – at least according to Alföldi but not far from Shakespeare either – the iconic figure of loyalty to whatever type of power is in charge. His unconditional – and which is more: fervent and exhibitionist – compliance to the new king and at the same time his authoritative fatherhood towards his daughter can jeopardize Hamlet’s plot; and Hamlet has no time and energy to feel sorry for ruining his love-affair, as he has his mission to accomplish.
What if this break-up is not enough for Ophelia to lose her mind? What if she is an eye-and-ear witness of the dialogue between Claudius and Polonius about Hamlet’s „strange madness” and its danger? She is standing in the dark on the balcony right next to the royal box during this conversation and she hears her father’s plan to figure out the reason – and she doesn’t like it at all. Her so far secure and transparent world has become blurred and cloudy, and she cannot communicate her fears and insecurity – there is no one around him, no Hamlet, no Laertes… Laertes had enough of this gloomy Denmark and left for Paris to enjoy life.
What if Hamlet’s bewilderment and perplexity is just a fake to hide his clear thoughts? The translation of the text – the work of a poet and a linguist of English Ádám Nádasdy – is clear, purposeful and meaning-oriented based upon clearing all ambiguous details. So it is quite evident that all of Hamlet’s “strange” answers and lines as well as his main monologue about “to be or not to be” are to hide his thoughts on the one hand and to eagerly look for the best way to accomplish his job on the other.
Claudius is a modern and determined tyrant who fears no obstacle or enemy in his path to be a king and to securing his power. If it takes to marry the widow he does it – no love, no erotic lush urges him but power. He gives his speech through a microphone to his people about the death of old Hamlet and about his marriage to the queen, wearing an elegant suit, standing in a crowd of obedient servants and arousing no doubts concerning his obtrusive, dictatorial character. He provokes applause for himself, and hissing at the mention of the name of Fortinbras the enemy; he is manipulating his people in his favor. And this is only the beginning.
What if Gertrud is still in shock because of the sudden death of her husband and evidently knows nothing about the murder? It takes quite some time for her to see through her new husband and the changes in her life.
As the play takes place in theatrical surroundings emphasizing the theatre as such, there is great emphasis on the scene of the visiting actors. The group – one man (played by the same actor as Hamlet’s father) and one woman pulling a small cart with all their properties and requisites – is poor and shabby but, as we find out later, extremely talented and devoted (played by Zsolt László and Mari Nagy). Their melancholy and resignation disappear in a second when it is time to perform – and they employ Hamlet as their third actor during the “mouse-trap-scene” to put the poison into the king’s ear. The royal couple and their cortege sits in front of us in the first row while watching the scene, so Claudius’s outburst and Gertrud’s shock are very close and univocal evidences.
Not that Hamlet needs them – he knows what he has to know. He doesn’t even need Horatio to help him – to witness the story is just enough. According to Alföldi Horatio’s role is less important than its customary portrayals – a sheer beholder nothing more. No close friend needed for this Hamlet – he has to go his way to the end alone.
What if his talking to his mother is an “ordinary” mother-and-son event? No shouting, no fighting; sayings and reactions. Gertrud believes the words of her son – she herself had seen what she had seen so far. Hamlet’s first murder – the killing of Polonius hidden behind the curtain of the royal box – happens as a “not-worth-mentioning” act, not causing Hamlet even to pause in mid-sentence while talking to his mother. This boy doesn’t care about the price of his mission any more, his own death included.
Gertrud hasn’t seen the main reason of Ophelia’s freaking out; she hasn’t seen what happened on the balcony where Claudius raped the astonished Ophelia, while she was talking to his son. Enough reason to lose one’s mind, enough to die. And enough reason for Gertrud to take to drink.
Laertes – receiving the news about his father’s and sister’s deaths – flies back in fury. What if he became a fully-armed anarchist waving a machine-gun, ready to shoot just anybody. This contemporary hero can easily be talked into the deceit by Claudius.
The “gravedigger” scene is a sad inventory of our once-beloved symbols: the red star, the hole-in-the-middle flag (the symbol of the 1956 revolution) all go to a huge garbage-sack, which is sad yet comical, which makes it even sadder: all they are worth is being buried for good.
While all the costumes are modern and elegant, for the fencing-scene there is a traditionally-dressed Hamlet in a historical costume. Again, the royal couple sits in the first row – but Claudius’s admonishment (“Gertrud, don’t drink”) is not about solicitude but the woman’s evident alcoholism.
The end brings Fortinbras in: Martens-brogue, black coat, black trousers – the outfit of neo-Nazis. Behind him a “resurrected” Polonius comes – the eternal servant.
Outstanding acting comes with the extraordinarily fresh and topical interpretation. Hamlet is Tamás Szabó Kimmel, a young actor who shocks the audience by his instinctive yet very proportionate acting in this huge role. Claudius is Zalán Makranczy, Polonius is Roland Rába who makes this role an emblem of our age, Ophelia is Csilla Radnay who makes her character a mature, smart and sensitive woman, and Gertrud is Andrea Söptei who uses all the non-verbal presence to show the decline of a queen and the delusion of a woman.
An extraordinary performance in a theatre, which is booming artistically amidst political attacks and financial difficulties.
 Judit Csaki is a free lance theatre critic for Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs; she is the editor-in-chief of the critical website called Revizor; associate professor and chair of the Dept. of Theatre in Kaposvár university.