“No pain, no thoughts.” Ensemble members echo this haunting line in Princeton Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine.” A post-modern, one-act play basedroughly on Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Hamletmachine” was written in 1977 Soviet-ruled East Berlin. The script is a mere eight pages long, giving the creative team the freedom to creatively expand on Müller’s written text. And yet, while the script’s brevity enables the production to take some liberties, we see that the text itself demands to be understood, both within its original political context and as a piece of timeless and stateless theater.
In many ways, the play is inseparable from the systematic oppression of its original late-20th century sociopolitical context. Strong Nazi imagery runs throughout: actors goosestep and refer to concentration and extermination camps. Politically charged references to communism and senseless oppression pervade the text. Actors proclaim that “something is rotten in this age of hope”– a twist on the famous line spoken in Hamlet. Similarly, actors call for the fall of “the joy of oppression,” a rather overt attack on the Soviet communist state of the period.
Indeed, a ballet of “dead women,” with characters who are identified as Marx, Stalin and Lenin, serves not only to ridicule the historic figures, but also connects the text's political message with its message on gender. This ballet, set to contemporary lyrical music, repeats the phrase, “Thank God I’m pretty.” The ballet features Kathy Zhao ’17 as a particularly strong performer and serves to challenge our understanding of gender roles and expectations. Interestingly, after the scene titled “Striptease of Ophelia,” featuring the fully masked Stefanie Webb ’17, Hamlet decides to become a woman. In challenging our understanding of masculinism and the ethics of war in “Pest in Buda: Battle of Greenland,” we encounter Hamlet as neither a lover nor a son, but instead as a soldier. As Hamlet urges his fellow ensemble members and comrades to join arms in an absurdist rebellion, it becomes increasingly obvious how fruitless his belligerent words and actions are. Indeed, at the end of “Hamletmachine”, the text asks whether everyone might have “blood on their shoes.”
Most successfully and significantly, PSC’s "Hamletmachine" tackles mental health issues, such as depression and suicide. Astutely, in his Director’s Note, T.J. Smith '16 reflects on how, rather oddly, Hamlet’s “‘to be or not to be’ is accepted so blithely.”
“Suicidal ideation,” Smith writes, “no matter how beautifully phrased, is not beautiful.”
Smith challenges the audience to reconsider how we understand even the most “beautifully phrased” suicidal ideations. Instead of romanticizing Hamlet’s suicidal thoughts, we see him distancing himself from loved ones when he asks his mute friend Horatio, “If you know me, how can you be my friend?” Most poignantly, in a scene titled, “The Europe of the Woman,” we meet four women – “Woman on the Gallows,” “Woman with the Cut Arteries,” “Woman with the Overdose” and “Woman with the Head in the Gas Oven” – each of whom commits suicide. This performance of suicidal acts – hanging, cutting, stabbing and burning – is disturbingly beautiful, moments that force the audience to reconsider how we define and understand even the most “beautifully phrased” and seemingly artistic reflections of suicidal inclinations.
Outside of its sociopolitical discourses, "Hamletmachine" features a number of outstanding performances.Sean Toland GS acts as a professor at the University of the Dead, spewing philosophy in English, German, Latin and Greek and throwing books at the young and distracted Hamlet. Webb takes unbelievable risks as Hamlet that are unprecedented in the Princeton University theater scene, including lap-dancing, stripping and full nudity, and is able to make her risks work successfully. Bar none, Fey Popoola '19 gives the most consistent and riveting performance. Her characterization of the cackling, incestuous Gertrude, whose wedding veil and mourning veil are one and the same, who consummates her second marriage when her first husband has not yet been interred in the ground, is nothing short of marvelous. Most notably, Popoola’s characterization of “Woman on the Gallows” is remarkably genuine and her cackling echoes in the theater long after the lights have dimmed.
The production is not without its flaws – emotion is at times artificial, blocking off-putting and soundtrack awkward. Yet, by maintaining historical context while focusing on larger themes such as gender and mental health, PSC’s "Hamletmachine" is an excellent rendition and expansion of theatrical post-modernism. It would behoove other student theater campuses to learn from "Hamletmachine," a production that uses theater as a testament to historical movements, as a witness to current social issues and as a medium to promote strong performers.
Pros: historically compelling, relevant social issues and strong performances
Cons: occasional disingenuous emotions, off-putting blocking, long scene changes and awkward canned music