Lars Eidinger enters the scene wearing nothing but lace boyshorts and thigh high stockings. He applies stage blood to drip from his nipples. He dons a blond wig and sunglasses. Suddenly, he is the Player Queen, an exaggerated, licentious version of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. He then steps forward and aggressively makes out with the Player King who is wearing nothing but underpants.
This sequence was all so much-much that I forgot the global pandemic, all my anxiety and stress which has been filling my days, and for a good ten minutes I was utterly giddy and overcome. It was also quite hot.
It’s a scene in Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Hamlet (adapted by Marius Von Mayenburg) that was filmed at the Festival D’Avignon in 2008 and which the Schaubühne released only for a few hours online.
It played in the middle of the work day in New York, but I could not help myself. It’s Lars Eidinger and I had to see what his Hamlet was like.
I had seen him once before on stage—well, twice. I saw him perform Richard III, again with Ostermeier as director and Von Mayenburg adapting, in Edinburgh and then when he brought it to BAM. I described him then as “the bad boy you know you should want nothing to do with, but cannot take your eyes off.”
I had no choice but to watch. He was so unpredictable in Richard III, I needed to see how that would be channeled into the depressed Dane. Apparently, it would be in lingerie.
As I was trying to do my day job on one computer monitor, Eidinger and company were tearing up the Hamlet playbook on another.
I could not give my full attention to the streaming production, so this is less a strict review and more a love note folded up and passed across the internet to tell Eidinger, Ostermeier, Von Mayenburg, and the best of German regietheater that I want to make out with all of you (with consent) if only we were allowed to touch each other.
When the stream finished, I realized how grateful I was for this distraction in a moment that is very hard to escape. I was a little stunned at how it carried me away and made me forget the world. If I could capture and bottle this, I would drink it until I was drunk for all the days of my captivity. I want to feel this dizzy, twitterpated, and alive. Heart-eyes Lars 5-eva.
I’ve seen Hamlet probably more than any other Shakespeare play. Yet, Ostermeier’s production is filled with surprises. The text is radically reordered and edited. It speeds along at two and a half hours. There are songs, clowning, and an anarchic spirit that just makes everything vibrate with life. It’s messy, tactile, and unsettling. It’s also very moving.
Ostermeier’s Hamlet shares many visual qualities and stylistic reference points with his Richard III. Substances are consumed and spit out in both. There are bursts of song. Both use live video and projection. Richard III has a field of sand. Hamlet a field of dirt that gets wet and muddy as the play goes on. But they each suit the text in their own way.
In this Hamlet, the mud is the central metaphor–graves, death, something opaque, of the earth, swallowing, and obliterating. People are buried in it. Fall face first into it. Eat it. Smear themselves or inexplicably fill their drawers with it. This is definitely mud-in-your-buttcrack Hamlet.
The production begins with an extended clowning sequence of a gravedigger slipping and sliding with the casket as he tries to bury the late King in the dirt. Another gravedigger holds a water hose aloft, spraying water into the air, thus becoming rain as the mourners pass by with their umbrellas, and soddening the soil into mud.
A raised platform slides forward and back for some scenes, along with it a jangly metal curtain that can sweep away people, time, and space. Sometimes the platform and curtain are close, other times they recede into the distance. Therefore, the field of mud can grow and shrink in size on stage along with it Hamlet’s grief and problems. Since it’s filmed, we also get glimpses of the space from above adding to its vastness.
The cast of six play all the characters so there’s frequent doubling. With the actors changing characters and costumes while on the stage and the mechanics of staging visible, this foregrounding of artifice works in tandem with the grotesque comedy of the production.
This is not a quiet, contemplative Hamlet. Eidinger is funny, furious, and big. He mixes both slapstick and the darkest gallows humor. But even with the large theatricality, the broad gestures, and the humor, the sentiment is pure.
Through Hamlet’s mania, we feel the maelstrom of his mind and his experience of grief. Eidinger makes grief a physical ailment of gargantuan proportion. It’s all so out of Hamlet’s control and consuming. He is not being quietly eaten alive by melancholy; he is being aggressively torn apart starting with his mind.
We are on this rollercoaster with him and I’ve never thought of Hamlet’s journey in that way. Twisting sharp turns that give you whiplash, rattling bumpiness so that your ass aches, and speedy drops that make your stomach lurch. Like an amusement ride, this Hamlet, character and play, are both fun and terrifying. The comedy and tragedy strike a balance of tone that seems impossible to pull-off, but they do.
Take for instance, the monstrous transformation of Gertrude into Ophelia. Played by the same actress, Judith Rosmair, she makes a guttural growling not heard since Sigourney Weaver was in Ghostbusters. It’s as if Ophelia is the beast within and she is scraping at Gertrude’s insides trying to get out. With a sweep of her hand over her head, she removes Gertrude’s wig and becomes Ophelia in an instant. At another point when I tuned in, Eidinger was putting on a body suit to make himself paunchier and then he started doing some sort of troll dance.
There’s something about this whole-body theater that is both intellectually pleasing and physically stirring. When theater can press the buttons of my mind while also quickening my pulse, I swoon. This is the theatrical high I chase when going to the theater.
But as I was watching on my monitor at home, all I wanted was to be in the room with this. Without a time machine that is impossible, but it reminds me how much being in the room matters.
Live, there is no pause. There is no retreat. There is just the juggernaut, Lars Eidinger, coming at you in a Hawaiian shirt and a sword.
I look forward to having a moment in a room with him again.
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