December 4, 2011 10:50 pm

Hamlet, Barbican, London

Thomas Ostermeier’s unruly, occasionally thrilling production plays things for laughs. The dominant modes are ribaldry, slapstick, and postmodern winking. There’s also heavy metal and heavy gunfire. Hamlet, played by the athletic, excited Lars Eidinger, is flippant even at moments of contrition and heartbreak. Wearing a fat suit under Hamlet’s customary black outfit, Eidinger hurls himself around Jan Pappelbaum’s bare set (dining table, gold beaded-curtain, pit of earth), rapping, farting and cackling.

He is on stage almost continuously. The rest of the cast double up, with five actors taking on 10 parts. Judith Rosmair removes a bridal veil to change from Gertrude into Ophelia. Robert Beyer is equally engaging as a frantic Polonius and a flashy Osric.

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Marius von Mayenburg’s script (in German, with English surtitles) is faithful to the original text, but there are cuts, alterations, and additions. “It’s all just theatre but also reality,” Hamlet informs the audience. “Leave me alone,” he orders Rosencrantz and Guildernstern. “I have to deliver a monologue now.” There’s already a proto-Brechtian air to Shakespeare’s emphasis on role-playing and stagecraft; Ostermeier wants to bring it out, but his approach is hardly subtle.

As a rule, Ostermeier’s changes serve to make the play more risqué – and the viewing experience more uncomfortable. Hamlet tends to be portrayed as affectionate towards the Player King, but he doesn’t usually kiss his penis. And this must be the first production in which Hamlet mimics the sound of a DJ scratching a record, or identifies an audience member as “the real Slim Shady”. The element of interaction grows as the play progresses. Towards the end, the lunatic takes over the auditorium, climbing up the stalls, occupying vacant seats.

Ostermeier, artistic director of Schaubühne Berlin, makes clear that he isn’t afraid of the play’s reputation, but as the novelty and energy wear off, it’s hard to tell what effect he’s going for. There’s a distinctive tone but no coherent vision. However lightly handled, events at Elsinore – all those words, all those corpses – must be made to matter.

But Ostermeier ends things on an exhilarating note, with a rush of projected images giving Hamlet’s death a genuine sense of doom. And in a cacophonous production, the final line (“The rest is silence”) delivers a particular jolt. Eidinger’s Hamlet, so addicted to distraction and frivolity, couldn’t possibly fear anything more.

3 stars

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