Deutsche bard

Thomas Ostermeier wants you to look at Shakespeare differently. From November 30, his production of Hamlet comes to the Barbican in London on the back of a successful international tour. But it is not Hamlet as you might know it. Staging the play from a pit of earth, it is a gritty, sexy – and occasionally muddy – version of Shakespeare’s play. And it is in German.

The fact of another language is not in itself remarkable: British audiences at this year’s Edinburgh Festival lapped up Shakespeare in Chinese, Japanese and Korean; next year the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad, will include performances in Polish, Japanese and Catalan. The German director’s version of Hamlet has proved controversial for other reasons. Heavily cutting the play, it uses colloquial language and has a hero who spends most of his time in a fat-suit. When Joe Melillo from the Brooklyn Academy of Music saw its premiere in Athens, he told Ostermeier that he couldn’t bring it to an English-speaking audience.

“He said it was not Hamlet how they consider Hamlet to be, and that it should be given another name,” Ostermeier recalls.

When I meet the 43-year-old director, he seems unruffled about the potential response of a British audience to an avant-garde production of one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays. A tall, gently spoken figure, since 1999 Ostermeier has been artistic director of the Schaubühne, the only theatre in what used to be West Berlin. It is Ostermeier’s playground, the venue where he and others, including the British director Katie Mitchell, have the space and funding to put on experimental stagings of plays by Ibsen, Molière and Strindberg, and more recent works by Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill. With a permanent staff of set-builders and carpenters numbering around 220 people at the Schaubühne, it is no surprise the theatre has a reputation for being leagues ahead of others in terms of design.

“It’s very easy,” Ostermeier shrugs, “we have more money, that’s all.”

But even without this generous funding, Ostermeier has become known for an innovative approach to performance. He began working in the early 1990s at the experimental “Baracke” theatre, a converted studio space next to Bertolt Brecht’s Deutsches Theater. With its repertoire of sex, drugs and gritty realism, it soon developed a following as Ostermeier introduced the playwrights Kane, Ravenhill, Enda Walsh and Martin Crimp to a German audience.

Since then, he has built a reputation for being as inventive with the classics as with the “in yer face” stock of British plays. Among the influences he cites is Damien Hirst, whose diamond-encrusted skull reminds Ostermeier of his set for Hamlet, composed of earth and a gold-beaded screen; both, he says, capture “the contrast between vanity and death that makes a good piece of art”. He approaches canonical texts “through the lens of Sarah Kane”, the aim being to shake up the conventions of theatre – and the audience.

The result is a Hamlet that is visually and artistically exhilarating but which may not be for everyone. When, a couple of years ago I met Lars Eidinger, the actor playing Hamlet, he expressed doubts that the production would ever make it to Britain.

Eidinger has become something of a cult figure in Berlin. “We make the stars in our shows, we don’t buy them,” Ostermeier says. “Some people think that’s not enough; that they have to invite stars from television or the movies – I’m talking about London now. But we are trying to convince people to come because we have very serious ensemble work and a serious subject.”

Ostermeier may be serious – brought up in a “very East German” theatre tradition, he sees Shakespeare’s plays as inherently political – but he manages to convey his seriousness with an easy manner. With Eidinger as a performer, he makes Hamlet both profound and entertaining. In the production Eidinger leaps on tables, shouts his “To be or not to be” speech over and over, and acts the part of a gloriously grotesque court clown. This oddly compelling obnoxiousness is helped by a sympathetically modern translation by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg.

Ostermeier has worked with Von Mayenburg since the early Baracke days, and they have also collaborated on productions of Othello and Measure for Measure. Ostermeier finds it liberating to work with the plays in German.

“In a translation you can make it more modern, you can rewrite how people talk. English people always have to deal with the fact that it is probably the most beautiful literature that was ever written but at the same time it sounds a bit awkward and dated, and even some English audiences don’t understand when they hear the lines on stage for the first time. We don’t have this problem. That’s my overall and highest aim when I’m doing Shakespeare: to have a translation where you understand every line.”

“The problem for me was how to stage Hamlet after Heiner Müller,” says Ostermeier. “He gave a lot of answers to the play – or told us there was no possible way of staging it.”

But performing Hamlet in German also has its disadvantages – and in particular the shadow cast by Heiner Müller’s epic 1990 production Hamlet/Machine, which starred Ulrich Mühe, better known outside Germany for his brilliant portrayal of a Stasi officer in The Lives of Others (2006). Ostermeier, who acted at the Berliner Ensemble when Müller was artistic director, saw Hamlet/Machine when it was performed just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Müller’s show set the standard for German productions that wanted to be experimental, making Hamlet less of a celebrity vehicle and more about the play’s political themes.

To a British audience unfamiliar with this German tradition of staging Hamlet, Ostermeier’s startling production may seem alien to their conception of Shakespeare. But although Ostermeier admits that, in coming to London, he has “no idea how they’ll take it”, he is quietly confident after his company’s successful run last year in Australia, another “country where people tend to believe Shakespeare is theirs”.

“I was incredibly happy that the show worked in an English-speaking country, and that it was a huge success. We had a run of 10 performances sell out, people queuing in order to get in.”

Regardless of its reception, it is an approach to Shakespeare that Ostermeier will continue to take. He will tour his new, heavily political production of Measure for Measure in Paris; Othello was successfully shown there in February. And after that?

“Every season, another Shakespeare. Maybe, even –” And here his seriousness slips a little: “Maybe, even, one of the comedies, or one of the love stories.” For a director who prefers works that speak of the “humiliation of being born”, that’s going to be quite a show.

‘Hamlet’ runs at the Barbican, London, November 30-December 4

Arts podcast

London has seen many Hamlets in recent years – David Tennant, Jude Law and Rory Kinnear, to name just a few. And now Michael Sheen takes the prized role in the Young Vic’s new production, while Thomas Ostermeier’s visceral, German-language version of the play opens at the Barbican this week.

Jan Dalley talks to Simon Russell Beale, who won acclaim for his Hamlet at the National Theatre in 2000, David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic, and Sarah Hemming, theatre critic for the FT, about the enduring appeal of the troubled Dane.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.