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Natasha Tripney: Is our reverence for Shakespeare holding us back?

A scene from Jugslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste's Hamlet. Photo: Nenad Petrovic
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Near the beginning of Aleksandar Popovski’s fascinating production of Hamlet for Belgrade’s Jugoslovensko Dramsko Pozoriste, we see Hamlet – played by excellent Serbian actor Nebojsa Glogovac – emerge from the grave.

It’s the beginning of a thrillingly meta-theatrical production that relocates the gravedigger scene to the opening few minutes and goes on to have all manner of fun with the key speeches. Text is central to the production, but it is in no way sacrosanct.

The main prop, on Popovski’s otherwise minimal stage, is a vast white sheet, like a great sail, in which the characters sometimes become wrapped and tangled and on to which words are frequently projected. So when the ghost of Hamlet’s father finally says his piece, it’s delivered in a wonderful rush, the words flashing up on the backcloth.

Other speeches get similar if less frenetic treatment and when Hamlet embarks on his ‘What a piece of work is man’ speech, he does so in a parody of Shakespearean acting, all heightened emotion and sonorous line reading: Glogovac’s Hamlet is fully aware of the weight of expectation that accompanies every line, the sense of anticipation. It’s a production of circles and cycles, with several nods to Beckett (the other main prop apart from that winding sheet, is a tree stump). This is a Hamlet who is destined to repeat himself, life after life, night after night.

(This is also a production in which Claudius is portrayed as a preening kingling – performed by an actor about 20 years younger than Glogovac – who keeps stopping to snog Gertrude.)

So it’s textually adventurous stuff, that’s also – crucially – playful and entertaining in the way it takes a machete to the play while still conveying its essence. I can’t remember the last time I saw a production that was as much about the audience’s relationship to the play as it was about Hamlet as one of the great roles. While I enjoyed Dreamthinkspeak’s 2012 gaming of the play, The Rest is Silence, that production was problematic in other ways.

This year, diversity in casting has been a key story in the staging of Shakespeare – Glenda Jackson’s Lear, Emma Rice’s divisive Dream at the Globe, and the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female trilogy, but I do think there’s comparative timidity when it comes to tinkering with text in the UK, a wariness – a reticence that’s probably in part justified given the critical response for those who don’t respect Shakespeare’s intentions (as if we really knew them, as if such things were fixed). I recall a certain amount of hoo-hah when it was revealed that the Benedict Cumberbatch/Lyndsey Turner Hamlet had used the most famous soliloquy as the production’s opening lines.

I know the language factor needs to be taken into account and there’s a degree of freedom and remove that comes from performing Vilijam Sekspir to a Serbian audience instead of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon. But my night of Belgrade theatre was a reminder of how resilient and springy Shakespeare is – these plays can take it. They can be stretched and cats-cradled, they can be put through a mincer and set upon with a panel beater, and they’ll still bounce back, the words intact, ready for another performance, another production, a press of the reset button.

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