As founder and editor of A Younger Theatre.com, I hope to shake up some of the dead fluff that goes with reviewing theatre. Having an audience for your opinions doesn’t always mean you’re right, but at least you get to be heard. When I was a young student studying English Literature at college, I remember a particular moment during a class where I confronted a teacher over her assumption that the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet said what she believed they said. “But how do we know that Shakespeare meant that?“ I couldn’t understand. Here sat before me, what we are told, the greatest work by any English-born writer, engrained like marble into the literature world, and here I was questioning, challenging. This didn’t bode well.
For me though, this challenge was more than just my teacher’s understanding of a text, it was a challenge to Shakespeare himself. I was fed up of seeing whole bookcases dedicated to Shakespeare in the library or bookcases. As if he needed more monuments to his greatness. I became bitter, frustrated and vowed to shun him at all costs. My lack of understanding clouded my judgement of him.
Drama school hit and of course I couldn’t avoid the Bard entirely, but I did a jolly good job at it, shunning fellow student productions and refusing to read his works. What I needed was the key to unlock my inner Shakespeare love, or at least to quench my anger.
The answer came in perhaps an unlikely source, my growing love of German theatre and German dramatists. I found myself pouring over the works of Heiner Müller, the notable playwright whose work after World War 2 depicting the differing sides of East and West Berlin led him to rise to stardom (and criticism) within Germany and beyond. It was Müller’s take on Hamlet in his play Hamletmachine that broke Shakespeare for me.
By ‘broke Shakespeare’ I don’t refer to me finally giving into his greatness, I mean quite literally broke Shakespeare, beyond repair. Hamletmachine takes Hamlet and distils it to 5 scenes with only the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia represented. This fracturing and distilling of Shakespeare’s words ripped apart all my preconceived ideas of what those sacred words can mean. Müller himself described the work as “the shrunken head of Hamlet’s tragedy”, where Hamlet becomes a series of monologues and visceral images set against the backdrop of communism and Europe.
A lasting image burned into my mind when reading Hamletmachine came in the closing moments where Müller’s stage direction demands “Ophelia in a wheelchair. Fish, debris, dead bodies and limbs drift by”. How you’re meant to stage that is questionable but at least Müller had the balls to confront Shakespeare with a fierce pen and write to his own understanding of Hamlet.
Hamletmachine for me made Shakespeare far more accessible than the Shakespearian verse did. After Müller’s deconstruction I sought other creative instances of artists giving declarations of ‘fuck you Shakespeare’. I didn’t have to look far. The likes of Robert Wilson, Robert Lepage and Peter Brook have all deconstructed Hamlet into one-man pieces, an epic soliloquy of sorts. More to the present day and you can currently see Alan Cumming playing all the bloodied parts of Macbeth in a one-man show by National Theatre of Scotland.
The World Shakespeare Festival has thrown up some challenges too this month. I may not have enjoyed dreamthinkspeak’s deconstructed Hamlet but the concept had its merits. Every line was cut and copied from the original and shared amongst the actors so that Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ became more like a piece of Dadarist poetry. Then there was The Dark Side of Love performed by teenagers from London and Brazil, which stole the bloodied love-struck characters from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Othello and showed them as the greatest form of teenage heart-break you could imagine (it even got a tear or two from me).
I may not get every line of Shakespeare, and I certainly might hold a grudge against those teachers who refuse to shift from their authoritative voice on Shakespeare but at least there are creative practitioners willing to deconstruct, explode and pull down Shakespeare’s words with force. It may not solve my bitterness towards those bookshops lined with Shakespearian verse but I’m at least one step closer to appreciating the legacy of the Bard and understanding him through contemporary voices. We might hold his words up proudly but we’re also keen to knock them down, and rightly so. Let’s not get too precious.