Blesok no. 88, January-February, 2013
Mueller's The Hamletmachine at the National Theatre in Bitola
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the daily political turmoil that have exacted their toil on the theatre scene in Macedonia, at present, the opening of the new alternate stage at the National Theatre in Bitola lends itself as a highly symbolic act. This stage saw the premiere of Heiner Mueller's The Hamletmachine, directed by Urbán András, whence out of the heart of the underground darkness, with the full force of artistic integrity, on December 29th, 2012, the following unequivocal self-legitimizing theatrical announcement was symbolically performed:
Here Lives Mephistopheles!
The self-sacrificing commitment of each member of the theatrical team (in terms of their functional as well as personal integrity) while enacting the reality of the artistic fiction is an announcement which brings to light the sacrificial candle. Under its trembling playfulness, we can equally spot the lightness and the shadows that signify its absence. The play is consistently and thoroughly, from start to finish, performed in a space whence the uncompromising self-facing happens before the unfortunate cry – “Lights! Turn on the lights!” – that is to dispel the darkness (force it under a bed or rug, no matter).
The geniality of this production unmistakably lies in the fusion between the collective artistic and dramaturgical symbiosis enacted while reading and building on Mueller’s text against the backdrop of the current Macedonian social, public, cultural scene. Certainly, this particular text by Mueller is particularly handy in this regard. Written as an anti-drama in five fragmented (almost thrown together) monologues – set against an absence of plot and characters while recalling the semantic potential of Shakespeare’s trademark figures: Hamlet, the Father’s Ghost, the Mother, Horatio, and Ophelia, whilst summoning up the abyss of the intellectual’s revolution that happens to carry the weight of Europe’s ruins as history enacts itself through a series of totalitarian regimes, one replacing the other – Mueller’s text allows for numerous directorial adaptations. In fact, according to Sanja Nikičević, the latter is what affords the text its long-standing popularity, much like Büchner’s Woyzeck. In this particular staging, however, what comes evidently across, at least as far as the Macedonian public is concerned, is the close collaboration between the guest-director from Subotica, Urbán András, and the ensemble of the National Theatre in Bitola. Namely, what persists is the director’s skillfulness when getting the actors to recognize “gutturally” the meanings introduced by Mueller’s text, and thus develop them, “from the gut”, into dramatic situations that clearly reference the Macedonian social context. Urbán’s directorial craftsmanship is primarily reflected in this uncanny ability to stake-hold, fully, the creative potential of each member of the team, which in turn, clearly results in a collectively enacted promise to the performance, i.e., the members of the ensemble (the actors, the dramaturge Biljana Krajchevska) freely stake their own personal integrity/identity when enacting the reality of the theatrical text (taking into account their confessional co-authorship when crafting the script, which neither spares the theatre’s manager, nor the play’s director and/or set designer). In other words, the director’s geniality lends itself through a combination of master leadership and entrenchment of the host of enacted narrative strands within the symbolic strongholds offered by Mueller’s text. Visually speaking: the set design by Valentin Svetozarev, the costumography by Blagoj Micevski, Urbán’s use of props – all these are strikingly minimal, becoming multi-functional, so that the introduction of a prop or costume in the different semantic (and oppositional) contextualizations while dramatic situations take their turns, allow for the production to exist in the deeply symbolical. Together with the minimal set design, the actors’ entries and exits are simplified to the point of ingeniousness, which allows the audience to be led, again and anew, by the turning points and dramatic event exchanges. With that, in the whirlwind of scene changes, costumes play a particularly significant role in the symbolization of the depicted. The redundancy or the echoing-effect of their appearance (or the absence of nudity) ties them, visually speaking, to the variety of audio signs of the theatrical text. Along those lines, costumes play a productive role in supporting Mueller’s text as a frame, thus allowing for the signifying criss-crossing of the constant shifting of the two representational levels: 1.) the private/familial (achieved with the mentioning of Hamlet) and 2.) the public/social (developed onto the “rottenness” of Denmark and “the ruins of Europe” whose periphery, right here in the Macedonian topos, has been emphasized by the neo-conservatism present in disciplining the body and spirit, whose externality is marked by corruption, consumerism and violence set against the backdrop of poverty and misery.
It is not easy to illustrate, and at the same time simplify, the multiplicity of meanings when the public and the private swap and mirror themselves while all of the signs of this theatrical text participate equally. This multiplicity can, however, be pointed out within the chain of semantic twists and turns of the theatrical sign. The most immediately illustrative would be the character of Ophelia, whose presence in Mueller’s text has been multiplied and cast in a series of dramatic situations that reference the different segments of our current social circumstances. The nakedness of Mueller’s Ophelia, The Europe of the Woman, in Urbán’s production is embodied by the actor Sonja Mihajlova:
I am Ophelia. She who the river could not hold. The woman on the gallows The woman with the slashed arteries The woman with the overdose ON THE LIPS SNOW The woman with the head in the gas-oven. Yesterday I stopped killing myself. I am alone with my breasts my thighs my lap. I rip apart the instruments of my imprisonment the Stool the Table the Bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my Home. I tear the doors off their hinges to let the wind and the cry of the World inside. I smash the Window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photographs of the men who I loved and who used me on the Bed on the Table on the Chair on the Floor. I set fire to my prison. I throw my clothes into the fire. I dig the clock which was my heart out of my breast. I go onto the street, clothed in my blood.
Namely, her uncompromising exposure in her nudity has in fact been multiplied throughout the numerous scene exchanges, first and foremost in terms of costume: the exposure of the four women in red skirts with neatly packaged breast, thin-wrapped, are set in front of the microphone, to be then relocated in front of four open coolers. Said scene allows us to recognize Ophelia (or The Europe of the Woman)’s role, seen through the cold rational optics of consumerism, and at the same time, as the externality of the mantra “healthy body and healthy mind”, which through the cascading rhythms of the basketball announces the new social ideal of the woman placed in the boyish managerial jet-set of the ‘most eligible’ bachelors sporting ‘the warrior athlete’ gene (actors: Borche Gjakovski, Ivan Jerchikj, Nikola Projchevski, Ognen Drangovski): “with style, decently dressed with moderate make-up (…) highly educated, conservatively educated, a non-smoker”. This four-times Ophelia or The Europe of the Woman (actors: Valentina Gramosli, Ilina Chorevska, Maja Andonovska, Sonja Mihajlova) has been equally robbed off by the exposure of her socially situated context, one whence social misery prevails and violence is immediate and brutal. Her dignity is equally robbed off on stage (playfully delivered), which depicts her as a member of the Other Europe. Horrific and ultimate, in this sequence of palimpsest additions, the auto-referentiality of the scene comes across, performed as a dramatic conflict of mutual accusations between the male and female actors, where they exit their theatrically assigned roles and speak about their work in the theatre. The performance of the dramatic conflict is, certainly, a kind of mimicry which hides the confessional character of this scene. The audience fully understands the horror and greatness of the final, the ultimate act of artistic self-exposure, where the costume is gone, where the role is gone, and where the actor turns him/herself into a stage effigy set in an arena of social repression while at the same time, led by the mannerism of representation enacting this scene as a social comedy one, follows the precept of the genre by allowing for painful laughter. Thus, the promise of a smile that the staging of this scene offers as a possibility is what voices, perhaps most forcefully and paradoxically, the right to an utopian hope, something which Mueller’s text seems to, quite clearly, reject as an option:
I am not Hamlet. I play no role anymore. My words have nothing more to say to me. My thoughts suck the blood of images. My drama is cancelled. Behind me the scenery is being taken down. By people who are not interested in my drama, for people, to whom it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me either. I’m not playing along anymore. Stagehands install, unknown to Hamlet-actor, a refrigerator and three TV sets. Humming of the refrigerator. Three programs without sound. The scenery is a monument. It portrays a man who made history, a hundred times life-size. The petrifaction of a hope. His name in interchangeable. The hope has not been fulfilled. The monument lies on the ground, razed three years after the state funeral of the Hated and Honored One by those who now rule us. And the stone is inhabited. In the spacious nose and earholes, in the folds of skin and uniform of the shattered icon dwell the poorer population of the metropolis.
Following the chain of semantic twists and turns in the potential that the figure of Ophelia, or The Europe of the Woman holds, and in regards to the stepping in/out of the different scenes, and their visual correlation, the final scene is worth mentioning, when Ophelia (Sonja Oshavkova) voices herself; here, in the absence of text/script, the character rests on the iconic attributes of her costume-d presence: the red skirt comes in the format of a red scarf, and the bared breast turns her character into a Madonna icon:
Here speaks Electra. In the Heart of Darkness. Under the Sun of Torture. To the Metropolises of the World. In the Names of the Victims. I expel all the semen which I have received. I transform the milk of my breasts into deadly poison. I suffocate the world which I gave birth to, between my thighs. I bury it in my crotch. Down with the joy of oppression. Long live hate, loathing, rebellion, death. When she walks through your bedroom with butcher’s knives, you’ll know the truth.
In fact, here we come across one more exceptionally skillful costume solution that productively participates in the structuring of the different scenic meanings, while productively collaborating with Mueller’s text as the premise for the play’s script. Namely, we are offered a way to look further at Mueller’s associative meaning, about connecting Ophelia to Madonna, in the third scene of the play (On a swing a Madonna with breast-cancer.) Ophelia and Madonna are visually called in the moment when Electra voices herself. With that, at the same time, the iconic representation of Madonna acts as a bonus to the swift turn of the audience’s optics to the place where it all started from, to the realm of the private/familial, opened up by the starting line (actor: Sasho Ognenovski): “Listen, listen, if you loved your father truly, avenge his dire murder”.
The need to emphasize this deeply felt and consistently enacted structuring of the theatrical text will perhaps become clearer if the numerous thematic (subheadings) in the play’s script are enumerated, a text otherwise ten times longer than Mueller’s original: 1.) Hamletmachine; 2.) Women Struggling with Microphone Condoms; 3.) Sports; 4.) Raskolnikov Men; 5.) Demonstration; 6.) Female Raskolnikov; 7.) Comfort/Disgust; 8.) Albanians; 9.) Ophelia; 10.) The Beach; 11.) Corruption – the National Scene; 12.) Phoning; 13.) I no longer want Hamletmachine, and 14.) Aquarium. With that, the 11th scene, Corruption – the National Scene, which takes up around 45 percent of the play’s script, is the aforementioned auto-referential scene, the one whence the actors ‘step out’ of their roles, attesting to the co-authorship montage nature of the play’s script, and one which includes quotes by Albert Camus, Damjan Gruev, William Shakespeare, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Karl Marx, Kocho Racin, Mao Zedong, Nikola Jonkov Vapcarov and Slavoj Žižek.
Instead of a denouement, henceforth leaving behind many open-ended remarks about the creative geniality of the production’s entire team, I’d like to, once again, voice my earlier, starting claim about this premiere production of the new stage at the National in Bitola, about the symbolic character of this production’s announcement, whence the light (Dimche Spasevski) is present enough to shed light on the darkness, too. As if under the guiding light of the dawn of the new year, when dark(ness) and light(ness) reign equally supreme.
Translated by Bela Gligorova
1. Heiner Mueller’s The Hamletmachine (1979), Translated into English by Dennis Redmond (2001). All citations are referenced to this version of Mueller’s text (Trans. note).
2. Part of the play’s script and not the original Mueller’s text.
3. Part of the play’s script and not the original Mueller’s text.