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Toronto Slavic Annual 2003Toronto Slavic Annual 2003

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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Susann Suprenant

“Remembrances redelivered”:
Staging Offstage Action in Nekrosius's Hamletas

Performances of this kind cause an upheaval in your consciousness.
They turn upside down everything you have known before.

Marina Zajonc

Although few audiences in North America have had the opportunity to witness the work of Lithuanian theatre director Eimuntas Nekrosius, his growing reputation as the preeminent Eastern European director deserves notice. For the past fifteen years, Nekrosius has become known as a radically innovative director of Chekhov, Pushkin, and Shakespeare, and his productions have frequently won first prize at theatre festivals in Lithuania and across Europe (Carlson 233). One of Nekrosius's most lauded productions was Hamletas, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. I will refer to Nekrosius production by its Lithuanian title, Hamletas, to distinguish it from the text of Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. The Toronto reviewer for Stage Door asserts that Hamletas “replaces preconceptions about how Shakespeare ought to be played with its own rules” (Hoile). A review of Hamletas in Shakespeare Bulletin claims, “It is difficult to imagine creating a truly original staging of Hamlet, but that is what the Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrosius “has done [with] unprecedented force” (Savin 26).

In conjunction with LIFE at the International Lithuanian Theatre Festival in Vilnius, Hamletas was first presented in 1997. It was later performed at numerous other European festivals in 1998 and 1999. Hamletas marked the beginning of Nekrosius's studio, Meno Fortas, which is dedicated to performance and actor training and earned Nekrosius the 1998 St. Kristoforas for highest theatrical achievement in Europe. Meno Fortas has also performed Hamletas at international theatre festivals in Montreal (1998) and Toronto (2002).

The Lithuanian prose translation of Hamletas (1) by Aleksas Churginas is “considerably cut and rearranged” (Carlson 234). Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern have been eliminated. The main characters Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, the Ghost, Horatio, Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia are supported by three players, two men and one woman, who play an amalgamated chorus of all the minor roles. For non-Lithuanian speakers, a limited grasp of the translated text is countered not only by general familiarity with Hamlet, but especially by Nekrosius's powerful emphasis on the mise-en-scène. In the only book-length study of Nekrosius's work published in English, Ludvika Popenhagen notes that in Nekrosius's productions “the primordial importance of the word is reduced in performance, and the physical expressivity of the actors and their interaction with the scenographic elements become the vital carriers of information” (118). As Brigit Beumers describes it, “Nekrosius deconstructs text; he lays bare the bones of dramatic structure; he deprives the text of the superfluous” (70). Typical of Nekrosius, his reading of Hamlet “is amazingly clear, precise, and extremely pointed once the visual imagery has been deciphered” (70).

Nekrosius does more than de-emphasize the spoken text of Hamlet. He enhances his emphasis on the visual by staging offstage action, i.e. scenes to which Shakespeare's text only refers. The following examination of Hamletas will first give the reader a sense of Nekrosius's visual style, which emphasizes actors' heightened physicality and interaction with stage properties. Then, by focusing on two representative scenes of offstage action, Hamlet's writing of lines for the players and the death of Ophelia, I will demonstrate how Nekrosius's Hamletas effects a critical revision and deconstruction of Hamlet.

Hamletas consists of scenes played as visual poetry rather than as moments of Aristotelian action to advance the plot. Striking aspects of the mise-en-scene include the actors' non-realistic movement repetitions, the ritualistic use of the elements, especially of water and fire, and the intense and continual soundscape created through actors' voices, found items such as metal tubing and oversized goblets, and offstage music. Designer Nadeza Gultiajeva's dominant image for the production is a giant, rusting, circular saw blade, ominously suspended in mist over the acting area. The costumes, along with the saw blade, create a feeling of oppression with their dark fabrics, militaristic suits, and huge, rustic fur coats. Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius (played by Vytautas Rumsas, Egle Mikulionyte, and Povilas Budrys respectively) preside over a stark and cruel Elsinore. A burly Claudius shouts incessantly, Gertrude defers nervously, and Polonius slinks about carrying a thin metal pipe used both as a weapon and as a spying device. Polonius also uses the pipe as a breathing tube when he hides in a trunk during the closet scene. When Hamlet (Andrius Mamontovas ) places the pipe in a goblet of water, Polonius is killed. We watch with Hamlet and Gertrude as the bubbles rise up and then cease, pointing to Polonius's death.

Several other elements of the production deserve mentioning. Horatio (Ramunas Rudokas) is a rougher, more volatile shadow of Hamlet. Onstage nearly every time Hamlet is present, Horatio often howls maniacally and suffers expressively in contrast to the almost bewildered sensitivity of Hamlet. He also, sometimes wrapped together with Hamlet in the same fur, leads Hamlet to and from scenes. For example, Horatio leads Hamlet to the Ghost, initiating Hamlet into a ritualized confrontation by blindfolding him so that he can “see” his dead father.

The Ghost (Vladas Bagadonas) feels omnipresent in Hamletas. He is frequently onstage, standing in a white fur coat, watching, or rocking in a rocking chair that bursts into flames when he gets up. The Ghost appears to manage the action by arranging the set pieces between scenes or instigating change by altering stage properties.

The use of the players in Hamletas is an important change from Hamlet. With fewer men in the total cast and a highly prominent female player, who periodically breaks into an aria from Verdi's La Forza del Destino, the production balances gender more than usual. Nekrosius's choice to use the players as the watch as well as the gravediggers adds a prescient, harsh playfulness to those roles. When these three players present their performance at court, their informal antics invite the onstage audience to participate in the brutal game of follow the leader that closes “The Murder of Gonzago.” Most importantly, their continual presence onstage highlights their role as “the players” so the entirety of Hamletas becomes “The Mousetrap.”

Ophelia (Viktorija Kuodyte) is portrayed with remarkable energy. She is costumed in a blue-green dress with a close fitting bodice and a full, flowing skirt. Her hair is pulled back tightly and her shoes are springy and athletic. She is first seen atop Laertes's travel trunks, puffing on his pipe as he readies to depart. In this scene, Kuodyte establishes a number of gestic devices that she uses with variations throughout the play. Ophelia uses her fingertip as a sensory organ to test wind direction and to see that Laertes's pipe is out. She runs across the stage, bounces on her feet, and waves her arm. When Polonius arrives and scolds Ophelia for being too familiar with Hamlet, she claps and puts her palms together as though to pray but then flits them about in a youthful, teasing manner, as though imitating a swimming fish.

Ophelia in Hamletas has a uniquely coequal relationship with Hamlet; she initiates their physical contact and her directness contrasts with his confusion. As one critic describes it:

Very special are Ophelia's relations with Hamlet. In her swift transition from childhood to the rough world of the elder she tries to preserve vitality and humor. Her love is very chaste and at the same time rapturous and physical. Similar are Hamlet's feelings, but the heavy mission imposed on the prince tears the lovers apart. Their possible union has been hopelessly buried under the ruins of the evil world inherited from the older generation. (Judelevicius 57)

In a stylized love-making scene, Ophelia violently flips Hamlet's prone body onto his back several times and tries to revive him with mouth to mouth resuscitation. Hamlet eventually begins to imitate her and their passion builds until Hamlet, alarmed, catches sight of the Ghost's massive fur coat draped over the suspended saw blade. Hamlet breaks away from Ophelia, compelled by a vision of horror and revenge. Ophelia tries to call him back by jumping up and down and waving a red scarf. Her movement is both fierce and fluid, it is an ambiguous tragic gesture that is at once a sign of broken-hearted grief, a signal for help, and a presage of blood soon to flow. When she then tears at her stockings, Polonius is alerted to Ophelia's “condition” which he reads as pregnant. Polonius entraps her in his fur coat then devises an apparent abortion procedure by confining Ophelia, screaming over a boiling water-sauna.

Coupled with Kuodyte's vigorous physicality, the submissive speech assigned to Ophelia in Hamlet is laid bare in Hamletas through the use of child-like squeals, tortured screams, and the intertwining of voices offstage that effectually drown out the character. Ophelia in Hamletas is an example of what Fischer-Lichte calls the postmodern prevalence of the disintegration of the dramatic character on the semantic level (269). That is, instead of a character's lines being spoken clearly with the intention of communicating meaning, the character becomes the site for transmitting sound as a part of the total aural experience for the audience. For example, when Ophelia is onstage with Gertrude and Claudius for her mad scene, the actor presents a stylized physical representation of Ophelia searching for comfort by sitting in their laps and singing. The crazed vocal quality of the scene, however, is achieved by intermingling Ophelia's lines with barely offstage whistles, screams, other sound fragments, and lines created by the rest of the cast. Hamletas is an example of a postmodern soundscape where the text spoken by the actor “[i]s an element of a collage of recorded sound which is as much composed of different but simultaneously spoken texts as it is of shreds of music, sound, and speech” (Fischer-Lichte 270).

One of the major hurdles for any actor playing Hamlet (Andrius Mamontovas) is the iconographic monologue “To be or not to be” and in Hamletas it is perhaps the most memorable moment. The Ophelia-set-up-as-a-spy motive is cut so that Hamlet's central soliloquy and the following encounter with Ophelia are highlighted for their own sake rather than for the sake of plot. Hamlet enters the stage wearing a white shirt made of a paper-like fabric. He stands under the saw blade onto which the Ghost has fashioned a diabolically beautiful chandelier made of chunks of ice. As Hamlet speaks his famous lines, water from the melting ice drips onto him, wetting his shirt and causing it to dissolve and fall away from his body. When Ophelia says she has “remembrances” she has “longed long to redeliver,” she is scooping up soggy pieces of Hamlet's shirt as so much “solid flesh” that has melted away. Whereas the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene is usually played with varying degrees of violence as Hamlet breaks from Ophelia, the effect in Hamletas is stunning and binds the characters together against the corrosion of worldly cares. “[Hamlet] experiences the existential revelation with his body — during the monologue ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ pieces of his white soaked shirt tear off his body like skin. This is how Hamlet loses virginity” (Marcinkeviciute 54). This lost virginity might refer to the rebellious bewilderment of Hamlet at the beginning of the play. In “To be or not to be,” Hamlet undergoes a purification ritual that prepares him for the dangerous tasks that face him.

Nekrosius stages the duel between Hamlet and Laertes in a highly stylized manner with no actual combat. The two characters face each other at a distance with Claudius, Gertrude, Horatio, and the Players watching. All of the actors onstage are holding swords and slash the air in rhythm, which Hamlet and Laertes join, adding syncopation. First Laertes and then Hamlet collapse with the effort. Laertes is led offstage. The Ghost enters center stage with a drum. Water drips on the drum and the Ghost places his forehead in the path of the water to stop the sound. Hamlet touches the wet forehead of the Ghost, tastes the water, speaks the last line in the production — “the rest is silence” — while placing his hand under the incessant drip. Hamlet cringes more with each drop and as he clutches the drum, the Ghost helps him to the ground. The Ghost suggests the force of death itself, not as a medieval grim-reaper, but as the enormous price that comes with living in the world and loving deeply. He mourns Hamlet's death long after the spoken text of Hamlet is completed. He roughly cradles Hamlet's body, an avenged father crumpled over his “victory,” pounding on a child's drum and moaning.

The strong presence of the Ghost in Nekrosius's production leads to a reading of Hamletas that posits the inevitability of death as the force that sets the Ghost on a quest to initiate Hamlet into that knowledge. The Ghost achieves the death of Hamlet in the end and drags his prize — his son's corpse — across the stage for the last ten minutes of the play. This ritual performance of grief laments the passing of youth and the acceptance of a shared mortality. The King whose conscience is caught is Hamlet Sr. The tragedy of Hamletas is that in order to succeed and awaken the sense of the value of life, the father must secure the death of his own son. In this reading of Hamlet, the older characters, i. e. Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius, in working to constrict, deflate, or destroy Hamlet and his child by Ophelia assist the Ghost in his death quest. The younger generation, i. e. Horatio and Laertes, unwittingly plays into the plans of the Ghost by serving as a liaison or as a tool, respectively. Ophelia emerges as highly significant in this reading. She is the only fully realized character who fights to convince Hamlet of the vitality and joy of existence without demanding death.

The preceding overview of Hamletas, emphasizing Ophelia and Hamlet, now leads to a discussion of two scenes from Nekrosius's adaptation: Hamlet's writing of lines for the players and Ophelia's death. These two scenes, in which the offstage action is shown on the stage, demonstrate how Nekrosius deconstructs Hamlet. A reading, or in this case, a staging, based on deconstruction proposes that texts, in the broadest sense of the term, contain conflicting logics. Such an approach examines not only how a text is put together, but also the places where it has already begun to fall apart by looking for contradictions and highlighting multiple, supportable readings. If deconstruction focuses on the cracks in — rather than the coherency of — the text, then offstage action may be considered one of the cracks in Hamlet. We are told an event will happen, i. e. new lines added to the players' play, or are told an event has happened, i. e. Ophelia drowning, and we witness the aftereffects, i. e. Claudius calling off the players' performance and Ophelia's funeral. Although both Hamlet's writing and Ophelia's drowning are absent from Shakespeare's original text, their presence is rarely questioned. Furthermore, these “scenes” are examples of two interrelated motifs that critics have noted in Shakespeare's plays: the paradigm of writing in the construction or preservation of male identity and the eroticized and suspended deaths of the female characters. Nekrosius deconstructs Hamlet through his explicit staging by disrupting the binaries presence/absence because Ophelia dies in full view and speech/writing as Hamlet writes what would usually be experienced as the players' speech.

Hamlet's writing

The term writing is used here in the broad sense of inscribing, authoring, or printing. Writing used in this way carries the potential for inserting one's self or self-interests into an existing text and thus implies re-writing. In the Renaissance, writing could be viewed metaphorically as a symbolic form of male procreation or as way to counter the finality of death. In the introduction to Reading and Writing in Shakespeare, David Bergeron discusses examples of the early modern view that writing served as “a hedge against mortality” by preserving the present for the future (Bergeron 18) and “endow[ed] permanence to ephemeral events and important people” (Bergeron 12). Notions of writing in early seventeenth-century England also stress the writer's agency and are therefore gendered as masculine (Robertson 117). Establishing and maintaining gender hierarchies in literacy occurred initially at the level of instruction. According to early modern tracts on education, certain women could be taught to read. Instructing women to write, however, was limited to copying virtuous sentences and not composing sentences of their own creation (Robertson 118).

In many of Shakespeare's plays, the act of writing is shown as an active, masculine means of self-definition and even, by analogy, of procreation. Predominantly, Shakespeare's male characters are subjects who write or rewrite, whereas female characters are objects to be read. Hamlet is a prime example of this motif. For example, when Laertes tries to understand Ophelia's bawdy songs and offerings of flowers, he calls her a “document in madness” (4.5.182), thereby likening her to an indecipherable piece of writing. Yet the handwriting of the supposedly mad Hamlet is linguistically conflated with his persona when Claudius, examining a letter signed by Hamlet and announcing his return to Denmark, proclaims: “'Tis Hamlet's character” (4.7.51).

Indeed, Hamlet typifies the writing-as-agency paradigm; his writing is pervasive in Shakespeare's text (Ayers 434, 436). His first action after being visited by the Ghost is to write on his “tables” (1.5.108). In act 2, after Polonius and Laertes have warned Ophelia to resist Hamlet's advances, Ophelia dutifully tells her father about Hamlet's letters that she has repelled (2.1.11). Later, Polonius reads to the King and Queen Hamlet's love letter to Ophelia containing his poetry and professions. (2.2.109-124). In each case, Hamlet exerts his presence through his writing. Nekrosius deconstructs the writing in Hamlet, however, by drawing attention to the materiality of writing while showing its destruction. Nekrosius stages the latter scene as a ritual that binds Elsinore's older generation together against Hamlet. Polonius, Gertrude, and Claudius gather around an urn for the ritualized burning of Hamlet's letters to Ophelia: “commas and lines […] turned into ashes” which Hamlet will smell “like phrases floating in the air” (Marcinkeviciute 54). For Nekrosius, the materials of writing do not preserve life but only reveal mortality when subjected to fire and water. As noted earlier in the description of the “To be or not to be” scene, instead of showing any written “remembrances” that Ophelia may have “longed long to redeliver,” Nekrosius stages the image of Ophelia vainly holding strips of Hamlet's dissolved paper shirt.

Just as writing and agency are closely related in Shakespeare, a character's reading of words also demonstrates inclusion in the public, masculine world of writing and print. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Jan Kott ties the type of Hamlet portrayed in each production to the book the character reads onstage (68). Nekrosius, however, eliminates this connection. Words, words, words are devalued in Hamletas since writing, including the technology of printing, is evidence of, rather than a hedge against, mortality. Pieces of cold, metal printing machinery are primary set pieces on the otherwise bare stage of Hamletas. The odd set is described as “old typesetting tables, a ramshackle printing-press […]. The objects used as props are united not by their genuineness and not even by the fact that they have lost their former function [but that they] are outdated and fit only for throwing to the garbage. They are united by danger inherent in them” (Marcinkeviciute 54). Characters dismantle this dangerous machinery and play with it. They interact with the set piece to demonstrate their psychic torture. For example, Claudius crawls screaming inside the press after being caught in “The Mousetrap,” and then realizing he is literally trapped, barely escapes being crushed.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is not only generally associated with reading and writing, he is a model for a would-be director, adapter, or playwright. This sort of writing most clearly shows Hamlet's sense of agency. When Hamlet saves his life by rewriting the letter from Claudius that was to consign Hamlet to death, he imagines himself a playwright: “Ere I could make a prologue to my brains, / They had begun the play-I sat me down, / Devised a new commission, wrote it fair” (5.2.30-32). Earlier in the play, Hamlet successfully writes a “dozen to sixteen lines” to adapt the players' “The Murder of Gonzago” for his own purposes (2.2.538-544). In Hamletas, however, the portrayal of Hamlet as a playwright/adapter writing additions for the players only reinforces the impermanence of human thought and feelings. Usually, we do not see the actor writing out the lines Hamlet wants the players to insert into their play. In Hamletas, however, Hamlet finds paper to write on and lays it out across the stage, but he finds no pen and is forced to use charred bits of charcoal instead. The charcoal crumbles in his hands and becomes his medium, capable only of forming piles of soot on the page. Hamlet ceremoniously blows the soot from each page into the face of each player, chanting the words “twelve … only twelve” as though sentencing them to perform these inserted words. The blinded players scream with shock as the charcoal dust hits their faces. The players, possibly likened to the institution of theatre they represent, are blinded by decomposing words and sent thus to present their performance.

This is characteristic of Nekrosius's style. He uses actors and elemental objects to create powerfully resonant images.

We are in the theatre, and this means that like actors, natural things should play roles, be and not be themselves at the same time. It is not so easy to deprive a natural object of its meaning; the meaning can only be ripped off with artistic means. […] Only an actor can force it [to] play an untypical role, and only during this kind of interaction is a meaning-association born and does the electric current “strike.” (Barboj 52)

The actor playing Hamlet forces charcoal and paper to play an untypical role which leads to an unorthodox association between creating and decomposing texts, acting in and being acted on by text. Nekrosius deconstructs writing by showing that even in the moment of composing, words are already in the process of decomposing. The speech of actors is already deconstructed because, despite their stage presence, they speak the memorized words of an absent author. If logocentrism posits that writing threatens to contaminate speech with its materiality, the players in Hamletas display this even more vividly by having coal dust blown in their faces. Nekrosius lays bare the violence inherent in the speech/writing hierarchy by staging offstage and unwritten writing as crumbling, contaminating material which, in turn, produces speech that both brutalises and activates. In this way, Nekrosius has indeed made a marked change from the original, creating a poststructuralist re-examination of Shakespeare's use of writing and agency.

Ophelia's Death

According to feminist criticism, Shakespeare's plays present images of a passive, feminine body-as-text to be read and as an object of desire. Of particular interest to the presentation of femininity is that in many of Shakespeare's plays female characters linger in a state that is not alive but paradoxically also not dead. In an essay on the transformation of women in Shakespeare's plays into “jewels, statues, and corpses,” Valerie Traub proposes that death for Shakespeare's tragic female characters represents the containment of female erotic power. Traub points to the “fetishization of the dead, virginal Ophelia, the sexualized death of Desdemona, and thetransformation of Hermione into a living but static form, a statue” (121). These female characters linger in a suspended state — no longer fully alive but not yet fully dead — as fetishized objects of desire. They exist for a time in a liminal zone in which they both address and arouse sexual desire and paradoxically appear as dead. In Phillipa Berry's study on the death of female characters in Shakespeare's tragedies, she refers to a “curious detail of Shakespeare's tragedy plots: the figuratively dual or multiple dyings of female tragic protagonists” (21).

In Hamlet, the death of Ophelia displays this curious detail with the delay between her metaphorical and actual deaths. Before Gertrude reports Ophelia's drowning death, Ophelia is referred to as already dead. That is, when Laertes sees Ophelia's strange behavior after the death of their father, he cries, “O heavens, is 't possible a young maid's wits / Should be as mortal as an old man's life?” (4.5.164-65) and declares Ophelia's death-in-life status as an object as though she were a love token placed in the grave with Polonius (4.5.166-68). In Hamletas, however, the death of Ophelia's wits is not played as a traditional mad scene. Her actions may be frantic but they are consistent with the stylized acting of the ensemble. Before Ophelia enters, Laertes learns of their father's murder and weeps when he hears it was Hamlet who killed him. Laertes is then subjected to a ritual meal by Claudius who forcibly binds fencing foils to Laertes's wrists. Ophelia enters from upstage wearing a dress with a fluid blue skirt, and pops her index finger expectantly into the air as if sensing in the wind that Laertes has returned. She calls his name and Laertes stumbles about searching for her as though blind. When he comes close, she squeals with delight and reaches her finger towards him. Laertes, overwhelmed but relieved to see his sister, reaches out to her and pricks her outstretched finger with his foil. She screams, and an offstage chorus of agonized screaming echoes her. Ophelia's state of mind appears less “mad” than tormented by the pain of duty and love.

The death of Ophelia in the original text, or at least what we know of it from Gertrude's report, points to both her liminality and heightened sexuality. According to Gertrude, Ophelia had been making “fantastic garlands” of flowers when, accidentally or not, she falls into “the weeping brook” (4.7.168-76). At this point in the account one might expect a struggle or an attempted rescue but Ophelia reportedly continues singing and floating for a time. According to Gertrude, “her clothes spread wide, / And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up, / […] Till her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death” (4.7.176-84). Besides Ophelia's lingering between life and death, the bawdy imagery in Gertrude's description — including Ophelia's spread skirt and the phallic long-purples in her garlands — suggest to Berry a “strangely pleasurable surrender to the dirtiness and ambiguity of bodily desire in her watery riverbed”(26).

Not surprisingly, Nekrosius disrupts the narrating of Ophelia into eroticized death. As Gertrude and Claudius sit upright at either end of the proscenium, Ophelia comes alternately to sit in the lap of each and sings a child's song. They bounce her on their laps like a small child while she repeats her song endlessly, holding her finger in the air, searching their faces intently, and wiping at their skin with her skirt. Suddenly tired from running back and forth between the two laps, Ophelia hunches over like an old woman. Claudius stands and blindfolds her just as Hamlet was blindfolded by Horatio before he “saw” the Ghost. Ophelia, relying on her sense of hearing, begins to runs to and fro on the stage as though searching for something. She holds her hands out in the teasing fish motion she used with her father in act 1 but this time the game has no humor. Seemingly disembodied hands appear from the wings as offstage actors echo her claps, trying to lure her or resist being like in a game of Marco Polo.(2) Ophelia becomes more and more tense in her running and clapping and begins to jump frantically to an intensifying drum roll. Each leap sends her skirt flying up in waves of blue fabric around her face that seem to be drowning her. Suddenly she collapses in a heap. Kuodyte's wild death dance contrasts markedly with the secretly voyeuristic narrative of an absent, passive Ophelia in Hamlet.

The burial of Ophelia as written in Hamlet continues the image of her suspended, eroticized death. Ophelia's sexuality becomes the focus as the grave merges with images sexual consummation. Gertrude says she hoped Ophelia would have become Hamlet's wife and likens the grave to Ophelia's “bride-bed” (5.1.245). As Ophelia's corpse is laid “i' th' earth,” Laertes paradoxically notes her “fair and unpolluted flesh” (5.1.238-39) and then leaps into the grave to embrace her: “Hold off the earth a while, / Till I have caught her once more in mine arms” (5.1.249-50). As Traub remarks, “such passion, of course, incites Hamlet to claim his place as chief mourner: ‘Dost thou come here to whine? / To outface me with leaping in her grave?’ (5.1.277-8)” (125). Hamlet asserts he loved Ophelia more (5.2.272-74) and would be buried alive with her rather than suffer Laertes's histrionics (5.1.282). Hamlet rejected the live Ophelia as a “breeder of sinners” (3.1.123) during their previous encounter, but “as a sexualized yet chaste corpse, Ophelia […] suggests that sexuality is finally safely engaged in only with the dead” (Traub 125). By contrast, in Hamletas Ophelia's body is not sexualized. A grave is built around her by simply moving the printing press on its side as a crypt to hide her body from view. With this gesture, Nekrosius lays bare the traditional textual erasure of Ophelia by literally hiding her body behind the technology of word production.

Nekrosius deconstructs Ophelia's death by showing an active woman dancing herself to death in front of witnesses, while disallowing a voyeuristic gaze.

How ugly Ophelia (Viktorija Kuodyte) is! Long-limbed, talking in a patter, moving all the time and restless. Like a child's whirligig. She dies being dazed by her constant whirling among the truths of life thrown at her, as if somebody from behind the scenes of Theatrum Mundi were clapping hands at her. Kuodyte's Ophelia is something in between a girl and an old woman. A wonderful solution of the director and the actress. At the time when Ophelia should have reached the most beautiful period of her life, a tragedy struck. (Marcinkeviciute 55)

Disallowing the fetishization of a dead, beautiful, virginal, absent young woman, Kuodyte's Ophelia appears to move through an entire life span in her crisis before death. This Ophelia succumbs to time and the exhaustion of her own questing without enacting titillating madness or being killed into art (3) by Gertrude's flowery narrative. Hamletas may not claim to revise either Shakespeare or Ophelia, yet the innovative and hypnotic staging disrupts expectations of Shakespeare production and directly addresses the representation of femininity. By casting the vigorously animated Viktorija Kuodyte as Ophelia and staging the character's death surrounded by characters who seem no less mad than herself, Nekrosius presents Ophelia as subject rather than object and as integral to the play rather than peripheral.

Nekrosius's staging of offstage action “redelivers” Hamlet's writing and Ophelia's death. By deconstructing both writing as agency and the eroticization of lingering female death, Hamletas implies critical theory and serves to question the meaning-making involved in “reading” Shakespeare. Stage adaptations of Shakespeare have helped form the current notion that “[t]he meanings of contemporary Shakespearean performance are not closed within the text, or indeed within a single regime of legitimately 'Shakespearean' performance practice” (Worthen 3). Nekrosius's radical staging adapts Hamlet while showing how Shakespeare's own text can be seen to contain elements that invite adaptation.

The following passage epitomizing Lithuanian theatre is worth quoting at length as it describes best Nekrosius's style at:

Theatre of the end of the twentieth century speaks a syncretic language of movement, sound and color which does not need any translation. A literary text melts away in the multi-layered interplay of instantaneous transformations, wild rhythms and metaphorical revelations, and seems to have only a relative bearing on the flow of action, as libretto in opera. Like abstract art quite recently, contemporary theatre aims at greater generalization, rising beyond the semantics of the concrete, the individual mentality and historical time. Theatre does not want to narrate a story, it wants to reveal the moment of realization of great tensions (psychic, metaphysical, and fatal), which is the sole epicenter of the scenic art. (Kubilius 59)

Nekrosius is said to have popularized this new trend in Lithuanian theatre — a poetic-metaphorical theatre “devoted to the psychologically exact, emotional and plastic acting, the special and unique usage of the scene properties which gets a multi-layer meaning in the play” (Art Lithuania). Nekrosius has built a reputation for revisionary staging of classics in this poetic-metaphorical style.

If a traditional performance of Hamlet can be thought of as presented by actors portraying characters, Hamletas is more like actors being subjected to Hamlet-ness. Patrice Pavis's description of a postmodern performance of a classic text reads as a description of Hamletas: “The work is treated as a text: decentered, without answers, performed no longer as an arrangement of intrigue and agency within the plot, but as a vocal and gestural enunciation” (18). The complex mise-en-scene of Hamletas may be difficult to “decipher,” but nonetheless creates a performance text of enormous power.


  1. References to Hamletas derive from my study of a videotape of the production, numerous performance reviews, and conversations with Lithuanian translators. Thanks to Grant McKernie, Nellie Sudavicious MacCallum, Agne Reizgeviciute, and Julia Garret for their help with this research.
  2. My own cultural experience, and the subsequent water imagery of Ophelia drowning, leads to my connecting this stage action to the game Marco Polo. I have no evidence that this game is played in Lithuania and in fact Nekrosius may have been referencing the Lithuanian game Pine which is similar to Blind Man's Bluff (Reizgeviciute).
  3. This phrase, which has come into general use in feminist criticism, was originally coined and explored in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979).

Works Cited

  • Art Lithuania. 12 Dec. 1999. 26 Feb. 2000. http:www.culture.it/AL/esme/page7a.htm .
  • Ayers, P. K. “Reading, Writing, and Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 44.4 (1993): 423-39.
  • Barboj, Jurij. “LIFE: The Fourth Try.” Theatre in Lithuania 2 (1997): 51-53.
  • Bergeron, David M. Introduction. Reading and Writing in Shakespeare. Ed. David M. Bergeron. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1996.

    Berry, Phillipa. Shakespeare's Feminine Endings: Figuring Women In The Tragedies. New York: Routledge, 1999.

  • Beumers, Birgit. “Erosion Through Time: The Rest is Not Silence: The Lithuanian Hamlet of Eimuntas Nekrosius.” Theatre Forum 14 (1999): 68-74.
  • Carlson, Marvin. Rev. of Hamletas, dir. Eimuntas Nekrosius. Theatre Journal 50 (1998): 233- 34.
  • Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Show and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 1997.
  • Hamletas. Dir. Eimuntas Nekrosius. LIFE, Lithuania. 1998.
  • Hoile, Christopher. “Melt, Thaw, and Resolve.” Rev. of Hamletas, dir. Eimuntas Nekrosius. Stage Door. 16-19 April, 2002, Toronto. 15 March 2003. http://www.stage-door.org/ reviews/misc2002a.htm
  • Hébert, Lorraine. Rev. of Hamletas, dir. Eimuntas Nekrosius. Thétres du Monde, Montréal, Canada, 1998. Official Andrius Mamontovas Page. 26 Sept. 2001. http://andrius.m.tdd.lt/hamletas/oedipus.html
  • Judelevicius, Dovydas “The Fourth Wave.” Theatre in Lithuania 2 (1997): 56-57.
  • Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. trans. B. Taborski. New York: Norton, 1964.
  • Kubilius, Vytautas. “Theatre and National Identity.” Teatras 1 (1998): 59.

    Marcinkeviciute, Ramune. “Only a Non-Professional Can Play Hamlet.” Theatre in Lithuania 2 (1997): 53-56.

  • Pavis, Patrice. “The Classical Heritage of Modern Drama: The Case of Postmodern Theatre.” Trans. Loren Kruger. Modern Drama 29.7 (1986): 1-22.
  • Popenhagen, Ludvika. Nekrosius and Lithuanian Theatre. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.
  • Reizgeviciute, Agne. Personal interview. 22 October 2001.
  • Robertson, Karen. “A Revenging Feminine Hand in Twelfth Night.” Reading and Writing in Shakespeare. Ed. David M. Bergeron. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1996. 116-30.
  • Savin, Janet. Rev. of Hamlet[as], dir. Eimuntas Nekrosius. Avignon Festival, Avignon, France. July 25-29, 1998. Shakespeare Bulletin 17.1 (Winter 1999): 26-7.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 4th ed. New York: Addison-Wesly, 1997.
  • Traub, Valerie. “Jewels, Statues, and Corpses: Containment of Female Erotic Power in Shakespeare's Plays.” Shakespeare and Gender: A History. Eds. Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps. London: Verso, 1995. 120-141.
  • Wall, Wendy. “Reading for the Blot: Textual Desire in Early Modern English Literature.” Reading and Writing in Shakespeare. Ed. David M. Bergeron. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1996. 131-59.
  • Worthen, W. B. “Shakespeare and Postmodern Production: An Introduction.” Theatre Survey 39.1 (May 1998): 1-5.
  • Zajonc, Marina. “Hamlet.” Festival de Théâtre de Ameriques, Théâtres du Monde. 2 ed. May 1998. 15 March 2003. http://www.fta.qc.ca/th_monde/98/hamlet.html
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