I don’t know at what point I realized I was seeing the greatest Hamlet of our time, but it came early. It was probably when the–I’m sorry, there’s no other way to say it–fucking phenomenal Lars Eidinger was making wild sounds, then jumped through a chain mail curtain, tucked and rolled through dirt, stood up, and suddenly changed his entire demeanor to deliver ~the~ soliloquy.
The madness of Eidinger’s Hamlet takes shape in twitches and sudden outbursts, in destructive, ape-like smashing. It’s riotously funny; Eidinger’s performance is a feat of physicality. But what happens in the moment before he speaks the speech brings it all crashing down. His wagging limbs and protruding tongue fall away as the lighting changes to a chilly clarity on his face and he’s so, so close to tears. He’s looking directly at us, hoping somebody will look back, hoping anybody is listening. And then, in the most famous monologue of all time, he tells us he’s thinking of killing himself and he explains his reasons and why it seems like the only thing he can do. He’s confiding in us. It’s deeply, intensely personal, something you might only say to a dear friend. But he has no one else. He’s interrupted by a sound upstage–Ophelia, eavesdropping–and abruptly cuts off. “Soft you now,” he says, not to her, but to us. Don’t tell anyone what he’s said. He never reveals that inner pain to anyone else within the world of the play. We are the only people who know what’s beneath his frantic flailing.
The duality between the fake and the real comes up often in Thomas Ostermeier’s production from the Schaubühne Berlin. Before Hamlet and Horatio put on a play to trigger Claudius into confessing his murder of Hamlet’s father (the Players are cut from this staging), Eidinger’s Hamlet sings a made up little sing-song of a tune about the theatre while twirling around the stage. Later, he approaches us and says, “This is theatre, but it’s also reality.” At the height of the play, a sobbing Hamlet waves his hand in front of his face and he’s not crying anymore. He does another wave and he’s back to sobbing. He waves it a third time and he’s stoic again. Then he waves and waves and waves and the tears never come back. He’s so used to repressing his real feelings that he loses access to them.
And on the same token, Eidinger, the actor, is playing both Hamlet’s true self and his feigned madness. It’s a stack of tasks and Eidinger is more than up for it. It’s the kind of thing that has to be experienced in person. His performance is so wild, so unpredictable, so razor-sharp in pinpointing not just Hamlet’s needs, but his attitudes, the way he looks at the other people in Elsinore. It’s a pitiless performance; his Hamlet is covering all the pity with absolute destruction, annihilating anyone who thinks they can outwit him. More than any other production I’ve seen, Hamlet is in absolute control of this world. He’s three steps ahead of everyone else, which leaves him no time to mourn his father or consider what’s to come for himself.
Ostermeier employs ingenious doubling in his casting. He populates the palace with only six actors in the ensemble and minimal shifts of wig or clothing (often in direct view of the audience, sometimes mid-scene). Thomas Bading plays both Claudius and the Ghost, both murderer and victim. In one scene, he is in a tight closeup on the live video feed and removes a crown and puts on glasses and that’s the entire shift from Ghost to Claudius. Jenny König plays both Gertrude and Ophelia in an act of doubling that raises many questions about Hamlet’s relationship with these two women. When König’s Gertrude first grabs at the back of her head and slowly pulls her wig forward to reveal Ophelia, it’s almost like she’s peeling her face off, like an alien shedding its human disguise to show its true self. Gertrude is the armored version of Ophelia, the disguised, walls-up, heartless example of what Ophelia could become.
The production is also hilarious, I can’t emphasize that enough. There is so much physical comedy, from the opening moments when a gravedigger wrestles with lowering the deceased king’s coffin into the ground all the way to the end when Laertes, dying, repeatedly thrashes against a table. Ostermeier obviously takes the play very seriously and the production is very smart about the text and the intercharacter relationships, but he’s also having a lot of fun with it. It’s the only production of Hamlet I’ve seen where the production feels like it can freely mess with the play, interpolating ad libs and songs and slicing the text without feeling beholden to the play as the masterpiece it is. It can still be a masterpiece with a little Ostermeier flavor stirred in. It’s thrilling to be surprised by Hamlet, a play I’ve seen and read so many times. And after this one, I feel like I’ve seen the best one imaginable.