Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness

Michael Dobson writes:

I saw a great performance of Hamlet this spring, at Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, in a Soviet-era theatre built on a similar brutalist scale to the National in London but with less of its self-effacing eagerness to fit in. Or rather I saw Hamlet not in the Ivan Franko Music and Drama Theatre but under it. The theatre’s ambitious artistic director, Rostislav Derzhypilsky, had discovered that beneath the public areas of the building there was a cavernous concrete basement, only partly full of heating ducts and obsolete electrical equipment, and since the theatre was pointedly built on top of a German war cemetery the opportunity to set the most famous gravediggers in world drama to work in close proximity to some real graves was clearly too good to miss. About four hundred of us were led through dark passages and down rusting stairs into this shadowy modern crypt by hooded figures carrying candles, and there among the broken floor tiles and rusting cables the principal characters in Shakespeare’s play were laid out on biers as if dead. Once we had taken our places on a precarious-looking bank of benches at one side of the space, it turned out that these figures were not as dead as the young male corpse in black, set apart from the others, might have feared or hoped. Selectively revived in turns by a sort of black mass (performed by a coven of witches evidently visiting from Dunsinane), the cast of Hamlet were compelled once more to enact the fatal events which had convened this feast in Death’s eternal cell, in a mode that combined the nakedly and convincingly traumatic with a Goth-influenced rock soundtrack and some exquisite passages of wordless dance. In a frightening, potentially endless postmodern limbo, its prince, denied the certainty even of his own mortality, had gone to sleep only to dream, and they weren’t nice dreams. The whole play, as supposedly obsolete and defunct as Old Hamlet before he appears to the sentries, had like him become an old mole in the cellarage, discontentedly returned from some undiscovered country and as fiercely capable as ever of shaking our disposition with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.

(LRB 13 September 2018)