30 Jan 2018 - Brussel Lisaboa Houbrechts

“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!”

King Hamlet is murdered by his brother Claudius, who then marries the latter’s widow. Prince Hamlet, the son, wants to take revenge on Claudius, but finds he is incapable of carrying out the vendetta. After quoting the above words, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749) writes about Hamlet’s inability to act as follows: “In these words, I imagine, is the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure, and to me it is clear that Shakespeare sought to depict a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it (..) The impossible is required of him,- not the impossible itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever recovering his peace of mind.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe maintains that Hamlet cannot murder Claudius, that he cannot perform the vindictive task assigned to him, the son, by the ghost of his dead father. “A beautiful, pure, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off; every duty is holy to him – this is too hard”.

Lisaboa Houbrechts stages Hamlet’s inner struggle. What is important to her is not his revenge on Claudius, but his anger towards Gertrude. Hamlet feels betrayed by Gertrude because of her hasty marriage. He directs his anger at his innocent mother with the result that the task, the vendetta on Claudius, is not carried out. When Hamlet accuses his mother, his father’s ghost suddenly reappears, this time to dissuade and admonish him. He has deviated from the designated path by turning on his mother rather than on the traitor Claudius. But when his mother asks who Hamlet has taken against – he seems to speak in a vacuum –, the mysterious character of Hamlet becomes that of a lost soul, a madman.

Female perspective central – Hamlet’s hatred of women
Everything that is stirring deep inside Hamlet erupts in an attack of remorseless cynicism against Gertrude and Ophelia. Their encounters are devastating. Hamlet projects his mother’s sins onto Ophelia, the girl he loves. He harangues the innocent girl: “Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners. (..) Marry a fool, for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them.” Lisaboa Houbrechts casts Grace Ellen Barkey and Romy Louise Lauwers as Gertrude and Ophelia. She has the women – mother and daughter, who bear a physical resemblance to each other – change role to make it clear that Hamlet is really addressing his mother when he speaks to Ophelia. This shows that the deluded Hamlet condemns all women for the deed he believes Gertrude committed. In so doing Lisaboa Houbrechts puts the position of women at the centre of the Hamlet story.

Hamlet’s distrust of women is not wholly undeserved. Claudius constantly uses them to deceive. “Ophelia, walk you there. We will bestow ourselves, seeing unseen, we may your encounter frankly judge.” Gertrude is also used as bait to uncover Hamlet’s secrets: “Hamlet will come straight. Look lay you home to him. Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with (...) I’ll silence me even here.” Hamlet realizes that Claudius is eavesdropping on these conversations. He feigns madness to protect his true thoughts and emotions. He feels betrayed by Gertrude and Ophelia. This is the seed of his hatred of women. Shakespeare gave Gertrude and Ophelia all the action and they are untiring. This he contrasts with Hamlet who is in a state of inertia.

However, Lisaboa Houbrechts breaks away from the stereotypical woman and tells the story from their standpoint. She makes Gertrude an innocent queen and Ophelia a forceful young woman. They are misled by Claudius but they are not to blame. In fact, they love Hamlet unconditionally and try to cure him of his insanity. This heightens the drama. The anger Hamlet directs at the women is both unjust and understandable. Lisaboa Houbrechts places the miscommunication between Gertrude, Hamlet and Ophelia centre stage, she makes it the reason for all the suffering and incomprehension. This allows her to plunge straight into the family tragedy. She strings together the various dialogues Hamlet conducts with the women and they form the heart of her Hamlet adaptation.
Hamlet should focus all his attention on murdering Claudius but, as it turns out, Ophelia and Gertrude are the first to die. Only when both women are dead does Hamlet recognize the facts; only then can he kill Claudius, with one simple thrust of the dagger. The dagger thrust, Hamlet’s revenge, is described in a single stage direction and lasts no more than a minute. In Houbrechts’ adaptation, this tragic aspect of Hamlet lies not in his own inability to perform the task assigned to him by the ghost of his father, but in his relationship with the woman who makes it difficult for him to carry out that task. In Houbrechts’ adaptation the eventual murder of Claudius is little more than a detail.

Form and image – splitting layers of time
Lisaboa Houbrechts intentionally makes theatre for the large stage and works closely with painter and set designer Oscar van der Put. In exploring the meaning and design of Hamlet, Lisaboa Houbrechts and Oscar van der Put ask themselves how twenty-first-century makers and actors can evoke the time of Shakespeare.

For Kuiperskaai’s last production, 1095, Oscar van der Put made a set relating to the time of the First Crusade in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He used photography to evoke that period. He projected images of Roman buildings and medieval maps onto a large screen which was moved around the space. The screen, with an abbey projected onto it, could tilt and lean dangerously over an actor. The result was an installation and cinematographic effect. It looked as if the character was being flattened by the abbey. This image symbolized the oppression of people by religion in the eleventh century. The set represented a state of affairs. Oscar van der Put and Lisaboa Houbrechts were looking for symbolic, mental images and that research lasted throughout the process. In Hamlet Lisaboa Houbrechts and Oscar van der Put take this research a step further and call it splitting layers of time. The interaction – the splitting – of dynamic extremes – the seventeenth-century original, historical context and the twenty-first-century approach and symbolic treatment – creates ‘time gaps’. It is all to do with the friction between the two junctures in time. In this way, a new ‘interval’, a world, comes into being where remains of both times construct a new, timeless story.

For Hamlet Oscar van der Put is making large video sculptures which express both the historical sphere and Hamlet’s mysterious state of mind. He and Lisaboa Houbrechts are creating three carpets which, laid one on top of the other, can be rolled out, rolled up, hung up, etc. in different ways so that each act literally gains new ground. The floor can also be raised into the air thereby taking on a new meaning. The slack, hung floor represents a gigantic ghost, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The idea is to use minimal resources to create highly convincing images.

Besides the all-important formal abstracting in Hamlet, Lisaboa Houbrechts is staging a classic text while trusting in the creation of an illusion, the narration of a story. She gives her actors the freedom to transform into their character. Costume designer Sietske van Aerde, another designer Lisaboa has worked with closely for several years, makes costumes with a historical reference. Van Aerde was inspired by the luxuriance of Elizabethan fashion. The world of that era echoes in this baroque universe and at the same time a contemporary vision shines through. The characters created by costume and performance live to the full, played out between wooden walls and crates, gigantic projections and moving floors, until this reality becomes tangible.

Poetic logic and elasticity of time
Hamlet is a tormented soul who finds himself caught up in a story of incest, murder and madness. The original Icelandic Edda (c. 12) on which Shakespeare based his play, was the child of a primitive culture. Hamlet was barbaric, rough and ruthless. Shakespeare developed the character, rendering him incapable of murder and thus creating Hamlet’s melancholy. Lisaboa Houbrechts gives shape to Hamlet’s hysteria and also to Hamlet’s melancholy. In her vision, the two are linked and together they generate contemplative images. Lisaboa Houbrechts explores Hamlet’s mourning for his father. She crystallizes the trauma. Consequently, Lisaboa Houbrechts places extreme energy on the stage. Actors scream, spit, their bodies slow down in the extreme, they cry and fight. The emptiness of the stage is key to this. You need to be able to completely isolate an image of a screaming actor on a plinth. It is the emptiness, the melancholy of abandonment, which contrast with the hysteria of the actor. In this way the deepest possible suffering can be staged and still communicate with an audience. These are distortions, abstracting images she creates and to which the audience has to relate. In his manifesto Theatre of Cruelty Antonin Artaud writes: “This cruelty is concerned with neither sadism nor blood, at least not in an exclusive way. I do not systematically cultivate horror. This word, cruelty, must be taken in a large sense, and not in the concrete and rapacious way customarily given to it.” Lisaboa Houbrechts takes Hamlet on an inner journey, to a descent that delights her. Hamlet destroys. He represents an anarchistic dream which goes hand in hand with self-destruction. Like Hamlet, Lisaboa Houbrechts wants to present cruelty as a solution. Artaud writes: “In the true theatre a play disturbs the senses’ repose, frees the repressed unconscious, incites a kind of virtual revolution.” The spectators experience a revelation in Hamlet’s crisis so that they can view their own crisis in a different way.

In Sculpting in Time film-maker Andrej Tarkovsky describes ‘poetic logic’ as replacing the logical cause and effect structure with a poetic link between images. It inspires Lisaboa Houbrechts to instinctively represent what is taking place above Hamlet: the hysterical and melancholic forces which drive people to madness, religion, sex or power. Lisaboa Houbrechts contrasts this with a concept of her own: ‘elasticity of time’. Time can be condensed or speeded up according to the character’s emotions. In theatre time follows not only the actual time an event takes to unfold. After Hamlet’s traumatic experience (the death of his father) he doesn’t experience time from A to Z, but time splinters. Lisaboa Houbrechts studies the effects of this in the classic Hamlet narrative. The clear structure of the chronological story prevails but Lisaboa Houbrechts also makes room for excessive and stilled images which spring from mourning and trauma.

A ritual theatre – the border between art and life

Lisaboa Houbrechts: “In Hamlet I have a symbolic, ritual theatre transform a real family of artists into the canonical Hamlet family. Hamlet is a cross between theatre and real life. That border is often referred to as ‘metatheatre’: theatre that puts the emphasis on the division between what is represented and reality. It shatters the illusion. By contrast, I want to look at how the personal level can be brought in to make the illusion and the story the primary issues again.

The meta of the post-dramatic theatre detheatralizes. It looks for the ‘real’ in fiction (the ‘unreal’). A typical example of the metatheatrical aspect in the repertoire is to be found in the actor who comments on the action, thereby making it clear that it is ‘a play’, which makes him ‘real’. This also leads to ‘transparent acting’.

The meta of a ritual theatre theatralizes. Examples of this can be seen in a church service. Something that is commonplace, ‘real’, is exalted. In celebrating Holy Communion the red wine transforms into the blood of Jesus and the bread becomes his body. The ordinary becomes a vessel filled with higher life, a symbol. The ‘real’ takes on a theatrical meaning. The symbol as theatre.

I study what it means to stage Hamlet with the ‘real’ Lauwers-Barkey family of artists and to delve deeper into the tragedy of the mother. How will the personal, family bonds of the actors influence this mythical tragedy? Can the Hamlet story they tell separate itself from what has taken place in their own past lives? Can that filter through, make a difference to how they are on the stage? I have a dark, almost ritualistic production in mind in which this real family is driven by the Hamlet script. They must be possessed by it. In that way Hamlet is also about cooperation, about the poignancy of the thin dividing line between life and living and working together.

I am looking to build a bridge to the ritual origin of the theatre. In a ritual a community looks at an individual or a particular group that goes into a trance and transcends. This is a very personal process of recognition and alienation, both for the audience and for the performer. The performer engages in battle with his personal demons until he transcends. The community sees one of its members, with whom he or she has a personal bond, transform into an unknown, frenzied state which leads to awareness and understanding or to purification.

n The Birth of Tragedy Friedrich Nietzsche writes about the dithyrambic transports of intoxication in which the traditional family relationships are abandoned and people lose themselves in an incestuous orgy. The very wildest bestiality of nature is unleashed and people indulge in lust and cruelty. “Now, hearing the gospel of universal harmony, each man feels united... While singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community.” While singing and dancing man prepares to ascend to higher spheres. “His gestures express enchantment. Man is no longer an artist; he has become a work of art!” Reality negates the individual, swallows up his individuality in a mystical experience of oneness. The Dionysian orgy stimulates man to develop to the full all his symbolic powers. It creates solidarity, a new order and temporarily eliminates division and disorder. “Like the plague, the theatre is a crisis which is resolved by death or cure... Theatre destroys but creates the highest equilibrium.” (Artaud)

The first performance artists of the 1960s also staged ‘real’ life as it is at its most intense. In very violent, self-destructive performances we see real blood, real scars, real suffering. The more life, the better the art. But the performance artists of the 1960s also capitalized on theatrical aspects of their performance. The Viennese Actionists, like Otto Muehl, used a meta aesthetic (the camera was visible) and put the emphasis on the material they used. The paint became blood, the egg white a sort of grease. They made their ritual act theatrical. The meta led not to destruction so as to arrive at the ‘real’, but to the transformation to the symbolic. Kuiperskaai is now part of a new theatre generation. We are no longer part of the post-dramatic theatre tradition of the 1980s which established meta as a detheatralizing effect. I would like explore what it means to tell a story again today, by means of a ‘real’ family that seeks out theatrical horror. How can I relate to ‘meta’ as a young theatre-maker who wants to reinterpret the post-dramatic theatre and so draw on a ritual quality?”

Lisaboa Houbrechts & Kuiperskaai

Artaud, A. (2008) Het theater van de wreedheid (S. Vinkenoog). Utrecht: IJzer
Goethe, J.W. (1911) Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet Edinburgh & London: Ballantyne, Hanson & Co
Nietzsche, F. (2000) De geboorte van de tragedie (H. Driessen). Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers
arkovski, A. (1986) De verzegelde tijd (A. Uijterlinde). Groningen: Historische Uitgeverij


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