Eylem Ejder*

Who Is Out There? The Last Hamlet of Mr. Muhsin (Kim Var Orada? Muhsin Bey’in Son Hamlet’i). Written and staged by Bogazici Performing Arts Ensemble (BGST), premiered in 2015, in Istanbul.

The Last Hamlet of Mr Muhsin is a remarkable production, because it brings to the stage the forgotten and concealed story of leading Turkish historical-theatrical figures. The way history is written, there are blind spots which ignore the constitutive role of minorities. For example, Armenian characters, played by actors of Armenian descent, have often appeared as comic figures up till now; Muslim women have had their share of challenges in making it to the stage in the first place. Now, with key concepts metatheatre, collective memory, theatre historiography, Armenian minority, women’s issues, several performances question the history of constructing what we know as Turkish theatre. These performances try to reveal the role of its essential components, such as Armenian contributions. Who is Out There? The Last Hamlet of Mr. Muhsin is just one worthy performance among others, such as Imagined Performance (Hayal-i Temsil) by Istanbul Municipal Theatre, and Forgotten (Unutulan), by a brand new feminist theatre group Yersiz Kumpanya.

Who is Out There? The Last Hamlet of Mr. Muhsin (Kim Var Orada? Muhsin Bey’in Son Hamlet’i) tells the story of Muhsin Ertuğrul (1892–1979), director, actor, leading intellectual figure, who had a significant role in shaping theatre from the late Ottoman to the Republican period. The show takes its name from Hamlet’s first sentence (“Who is out there?”) and begins with the quotation “something is rotten in this country”: it is clear from the opening moments that it will toy with Hamlet through Muhsin’s journey into the past. In other words, it will struggle with ghosts. So, who might be Muhsin’s/Turkish theatre’s ghosts or “what, has this thing appeared again tonight” on stage? And can we find hope on this “haunted stage” for a better society?

Video 1

A clip of the show

A simple set: a writing table at the center, three chairs, a coat stand, a bookcase, and a skull on the table, recalling Hamlet. This is Mr. Muhsin’s workroom in his home. There is no specific reference to the exact date, but it should be a night from late in his life, between 1964 and 1979. Three performers: an old man, Muhsin Ertuğrul (Cüneyt Yalaz) is writing his memoirs; the cheerful ghosts from his memory, Muhsin’s first instructor, the reputable Armenian actor Vahram Papazyan (İlker Yasin Keskin) and an imaginary actress Latife (Banu Açıkdeniz) enter to accompany Muhsin. They all are significant cornerstones of theatre. Muhsin represents “westernized Turkish theatre” during the political-cultural transformation of the country in the late nineteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Vahram represents the Armenian theatre heritage rejected, long-suppressed and forced into exile by the above mentioned process. As a fictive character, Latife is a summary character who represents all the Muslim actresses of the time; history does not remember them all that individually, perhaps since they never had the opportunity to make long-term careers. In fact, other characters know her as the Armenian actress Arusyak, but, toward the middle of the performance, we learn that she is a Muslim named Latife, who disguised herself to be on stage.

Muhsin (Cüneyt Yalaz, centre) leaving for Paris to get training in theatre; Latife (Banu Açıkdeniz) and Vahram (İlker Yasin Keskin) seeing him off. Photo: Kenan Özcan

What the ghosts want from Muhsin is to stage Hamlet one last time. Hamlet is no coincidence here. First, these were the actors who played it first in Ottoman Istanbul, in 1911, in Turkish and Armenian, in the same bilingual show. In fact, the Armenian actor Vahram Papazyan became enraptured by Hamlet when he first saw it during his tour in Europe. He offers young Muhsin an idea to stage Hamlet. Second, Muhsin says that, whenever he is in trouble, he remembers and rereads Hamlet. Third, it is a matter of “to be or not to be,” a matter of representing and being represented, “a matter of remembering and being remembered” for them. Fourth, as Muhsin says: “There is something rotten in this country.” It is the key performance which brought together all these three people yearning for the stage, three important constituents of Turkey’s theatre. Will they manage to revive Hamlet? In fact, we do not know whether a Muslim actress played a role in the first production of Hamlet by Muhsin Ertuğrul and Vahram Papazyan, in 1911. Here, BGST imagines the role of these women both in Muhsin’s real, first Hamlet, and the imagined, “last Hamlet.

They perform scenes from Hamlet while also enacting their own lives. They want to be remembered on stage, to reveal what the rotten is, both “then and there” and “now and here.” But it becomes a performance of an unfinished rehearsal process of their “last Hamlet,” since Muhsin proves to be a Hamletic character who always delays what is expected of him: to go into action, to perform, to re-present.

Muhsin (left) with his co-actors in a scene set in 1911, deciding to stage Hamlet.
Photo: Kenan Özcan

Through their journey into the past, they revive certain moments, such as their first meeting, their first stage experience, young Muhsin’s leaving home for a life on the stage, Vahram, Muhsin and Latife’s first Hamlet performance, Vahram’s escape from the country, in 1915, because of socio-political pressures against Armenians. Muhsin’s becoming a director in 1921, at Darülbedayi, which later transformed into the Istanbul Municipal Theatre. All along, they perform certain scenes from Hamlet: Hamlet’s encounters with the Ghost and Ophelia, Hamlet’s famous tirades, his exile, his fight with Laertes. They do this in traditional theatrical forms, in acting styles important in the late Ottoman era, only to be ignored and forgotten during the Republic period, after 1923. When they are rehearsing a scene from Hamlet, it is always haunted by the past they share. Sometimes they discuss in detail what really happened there and criticize each other, sometimes they feel joy or grief. In this way, the “there and then” of the past and the “here and now” of the present are crystallized in the moment of performance, in order to allow the audience to feel, to question, to understand the ignored realities and reasons, not only from the past, but also those still current today.

Video 2

A 7-minute documentary, produced by the BGST, about the first ever Hamlet in Turkey in 1911

I am puzzled by the stylized, silent scene at the beginning: Vahram and Latife are showing Muhsin a letter and keeping it away from him while Muhsin is trying to get it. This mysterious letter scene is, however, clarified toward the end. It is the letter written by Vahram, in 1964, during his exile in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, asking Muhsin for a role in Istanbul or Ankara, a letter which Muhsin denies ever receiving. Likewise, Latife’s desire to return to the stage was rejected by Muhsin, since he did not find her a relevant “theatre figure” for the “new, modern westernized Turkish theatre.” After the letter is opened and read at the end of the night, the importance of playing “Hamlet for one last time” comes to light. This time, Muhsin asks them to join him. But it is “too late” at that point, and the sun is about to rise; all that is left is for Vahram to perform is the Ghost, who wants to be remembered. The last thing Vahram and Latife say is “don’t forget us,” both in Armenian and Turkish. And the last things Muhsin says are: “it will begin ‘there is something rotten in this country,’ and it will be a perfect performance.”

There remains one question: Is this performance, we saw “the last Hamlet of Mr. Muhsin,” the one he wants and hopes to stage in order to re-bring together real components of “Turkish theatre”? If it is so, I may say that Last Hamlet of Mr. Muhsin appears on stage in order to make the audience feel and think the “rottenness” in this country.

*Eylem Ejder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre at Ankara University, Turkey. She is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics—Turkey Section and assistant editor of the theatre journal Oyun (Play). Her PhD studies are supported by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK), within the National PhD Fellowship Program.

Copyright © 2018 Eylem Ejder
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Mr. Muhsin’s Memory of Hamlet Rewrites the History of Turkey’s Theatre
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