Hamlet

The thought of Hamlet in Lithuanian put some people off – but turned to be a Belfast Festival highlight

Hamlet in Lithuanian. Three hours of it. With surtitles. It sounds more like a punishment than a pleasurable outing to the theatre, and I was quietly bracing myself for a testing evening. Needlessly, as it turns out.

OKT/Vilnius City Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s masterpiece was comfortably the stand-out event that I attended at this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's, a stunning demonstration of dramaturgy and stagecraft that riveted the Lyric Theatre audience.

'To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature.' Hamlet’s Act Three injunction to the three players provides the central leitmotif in director, Oskaras Korsunovas’s staging. There’s no curtain-up: when the audience enters the characters are already seated at individual dressing-tables, staring intently at their own faces in the mirror.

The first one murmurs 'Who am I?', then another, and another, till gradually the obsessively repeated question crescendos to a desperate babble of existential incomprehension. It sets the tone for a production that gradually strips characters naked, revealing the raw selfishness and cruelty lying just below the surface in this bloody drama of regicide and murder.

There’s no set, as such. Instead, Korsunovas uses the dressing-tables to block out performing spaces for each scene individually, showing mesmerising inventiveness in the process.

Lighting is crucial in establishing situation and context in such a minimalist setting, and it’s brilliantly effective in the hands of designer, Eugenijus Sabaliauskas, as is the brooding tapestry of sound effects and music conceived by Vilius Vilutis to underscore key moments in the action.

Korsunovas takes liberties with the text that a director working in an English-speaking theatre would be pilloried for, making major cuts, omitting the gravediggers’ scene completely, and foreshortening the ending.

But the notion of a play’s text being somehow definitive and totally unalterable was foreign to Shakespeare’s period, where the practicalities of life in the unstable, confrontational theatrical world of medieval London necessitated a less precious attitude towards absolute textual authority.

And Korsunovas’s alterations have a clear dramatic purpose, in sharpening focus on the ways in which Hamlet’s alleged 'madness' (in Korsunovas’s view, more his mercilessly clear-sighted vision of reality) gradually infiltrates the lives of other characters, smashing the self-delusions they use to justify their actions.

The journey that Hamlet himself makes into the heart of darkness that is his own inner personality is measured by Korsunovas’s boldest stroke of all – the repetition of the emblematic 'To be, or not to be' soliloquy.

Mid-play, on its first appearance, Darius Meskauskas (the excellent Hamlet), treats the speech conventionally, as a musing, half-improvised meditation. Later, towards the end, it’s become a desperate litany of painful self-discoverings, the cry of a bloodied, fatally wounded creature who finally knows the truth, but is powerless to do anything about it.

It’s a devastating and laceratingly theatrical moment, typical of a production which made the play seem cuttingly modern in its preoccupation with the traumatising effects of violence and the psychology of individual identity.

This was a totally absorbing evening, and a sharp reminder of what theatre is capable of doing in the hands of those who really know how to do it. It felt like a genuine privilege to be present.