Robert Wilson, Declan Donnellan, Robert Lepage in a Nutshell

Yun-Cheol Kim*

30th Anniversary Special edition of the Craiova International Shakespeare Festival. Romania, May 16 to 26, 2024.

The biennial International Shakespeare Theatre Festival in Craiova, a city that doesn’t seem to be very wealthy and whose historical assets are not particularly well preserved, makes the small city’s existence known in a big way. The 2024 edition marked the festival’s 30th anniversary. The festival always attracts internationally renowned directors, and this year’s lineup was remarkably colorful. The festival opened with Robert Wilson’s new production The Tempest, followed by Declan Donnellan’s Hamlet and concluded with Robert Lepage’s dance-theatre Hamlet. I don’t know of any other festival in the world that brings so many of the living legends together at once. Although I had to leave Craiova in the middle of the festival to attend the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) Congress in Brno, Czech Republic, I was able to return at the request of the festival organizers to see Lepage’s Hamlet on the last day of the festival.

I arrived in Craiova at 5 a.m. on May 16 from Seoul, via Istanbul and Bucharest, so it took me almost 24 hours to get there. On the same day at 7 p.m. I watched Robert Wilson’s The Tempest at the Marin Sorescu National Theatre. Wilson directed actors from Bulgaria’s National Theatre. Wilson’s trademark of strong visualization is again at the forefront of the show, and for the sake of that visual symbolism the text is also simplified and rather focused on the fate of the young heirs than the conflict of their fathers. This emphasizes the play’s contemporaneity. The visual beauty is maximized by the actors’ sometimes clown-like, sometimes turbulent, modern dance-like choreographed movements amidst a spectacular panorama of multi-colored, three-dimensional lighting and well directed stage fog. I fought fiercely against the tsunami of jetlag that washed over me, but judging from those remarkable scenes that I witnessed, it is quite certain that Wilson wants to illuminate the farcical and fairytale nature of the play rather than to reveal its social connotations.

Curtain call, Robert Wilson in the center, The Tempest. Photo: Albert Dobrin

The main productions of the festival were all performed in the grand Marin Sorescu National Theatre of Craiova. The second production I saw here was Hamlet, directed by Declan Donnellan with actors from the National Theatre of Craiova. The stage was set up with highly raised seats on either side of the stage, separating the audience into two sections, with a long runway on the floor in between. So, the audience is looking down on the action. Beyond the two ends where the actors enter and exit, there are the huge auditorium of more than 1,000 empty red seats and a white wall that must be at least 6 metres high. Ιf you follow the actors’ movements, you will be confronted with the vast emptiness of life, consumed by bloody lust for sex and power and the stark reality of an insurmountable psychiatric ward. The actors all wear modern dress. Instead of swords, pistols are mostly used. Of course, later on, when Hamlet and Laertes duel, they use swords. The play opens with Hamlet leaning against the white wall and shouting, “To be or not to be, that’s the question,” to which the actors on stage respond with applause and cheers. It’s a hopeful start.

However, the rest of the play’s action follows Hamlet’s text faithfully, with no new interpretations, no changes in composition and no obvious visual revolution. Having high hopes for Donnellan’s play, I became increasingly skeptical as the play progressed. Moreover, on either side of me sat a man and a woman with poor theatre manners: on my right, a tall young woman leaned forward and twisted sideways throughout the show, interrupting my viewing, and on my left, a middle-aged man of enormous stature, breathing heavily, put psychological pressure on me.

Hamlet (Vlad Udrescu) says to Ophelia (Flavia Hojda), “Get thee to a nunnery.” Donnellan’s Hamlet. Photo: Albert Dobrin

But then, suddenly, I found that there was a very unusual, drastic turn of events. There was no Horatio. Horatio is Hamlet’s only friend, his confidant, and Shakespeare treats him quite heavily. This is quite a bold move, considering that many productions of Hamlet have interpreted Horatio’s character and role differently and built him into the fabric of the production. As a critic who thinks it’s important to critique the director’s interpretation rather than the author’s intentions, I tried to find myself in Donnellan’s shoes. Horatio’s presence doesn’t change or affect the action of the play. He is, to put it mildly, a bystander. In other words, the director doesn’t need Horatio at all to advance the action of the play. Instead, the audience, who can only look down on the stage and observe a fallen world and the survival of political greed, futile love and betrayal, is confronted with their self-portrait through Horatio, the absent presence in the play, as they look helplessly beyond the actors and see their fellow spectators doing the same. Donnellan has identified Horatio’s role with that of the audience, who, as bystanders, cannot intervene in the action of the play. No matter how realistic the actors’ emotional performances, Donnellan’s Hamlet is definitely a conceptual theatre, a director’s piece.

The duel scene between Laertes (Lukas Malkowski) and Hamlet (Guillaume Côté) in Lepages’s Hamlet. Photo: Albert Dobrin

On the last night of the festival at 9 p.m., I attended Robert Lepage’s dance-theatre Hamlet, at the same Marin Sorescu National Theatre. Having seen his autobiographical monodrama 887 two years ago, and having admired his genius through The Seven Streams of the River Ota, The Far Side of the Moon and The Andersen Project, I was curious and excited to see why he chose to make Hamlet, a play full of gorgeous words, a gestural play without words. In this second collaboration between Lepage’s Ex Machina and Guillaume Côté’s Côté Dance Company, Guillaume Côté plays Hamlet himself, translating and reimagining Hamlet’s dazzling language into violent gestures. In this wordless play, Lepage titles each scene with a surtitle (projected high above the stage), sometimes humorously, sometimes very simply. In one example, in the scene when Hamlet says, “words, words, words . . . ,” the spelling of English “words” is rotated back and forth, moving the final “s” to the front of the word to make it “sword,” mocking the core of this revenge play. The key scenes of the text, Hamlet’s soliloquy, Ophelia’s suicide and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, are embodied in a simpler, more powerful way than language.

Horatio’s treatment in this play is also impressive. He has switched genders. Asian dancer Natasha Poon Woo is diminutive in stature, but she dances with great intensity and power, in contrast to Hamlet’s introspective nature. What a difference from Declan Donnellan’s removal of the character. In the duel scene, the two young men duel with a red ribbon, and a white ribbon attached on their swords playfully but clearly convey their meaning, and the choreography is quite realistic. Unlike many of Lepage’s other performances, there is no magical technology used in this dance-theatre. Rather, traditional, conventional lighting changes and set movements serve the necessary function and aesthetics of the scene. I certainly enjoyed this unconventional performance of Hamlet, but it still felt somewhat incomplete. Perhaps my expectations were too high. My old friend Maria Shevtsova, Emeritus Professor at Goldsmith’s University, London, who attended the performance with me, said that this second performance was disappointing, compared to the first performance the previous day. Her diagnosis was that the performers were too tired to keep the tempo and rhythm of the play alive, and the fresh physicality of the first performance was missing.

Funeral of Ophelia, Lepage’s Hamlet. Photo: Albert Dobrin

Another theme of the festival was to honor the great contribution of Emil Boroghina, who founded the festival in 1994 and led it as artistic director for the past 30 years. Over the course of two four-hour conferences, the Shakespeare Sessions brought together a total of more than 40 national and international scholars, artists and critics who recalled their experiences with the festival in their respective fields and expressed intense gratitude for Emile Boroghina’s unbelievable passion and dedication. There was also a launch of the book TNC – PURCARETE/BOROGHINA, in honor of Emil Boroghina and Silviu Purcărete. Edited and written by Ludmila Patlanjoglu, the splendidly illustrated book recognized two of the festival’s greatest contributors.

Emil Boroghina. Photo: Albert Dobrin

Emil Boroghina is already retired and Vlad Dragulescu has taken over as Director of the Festival. While acknowledging Boroghina’s tremendous legacy, I hope Vlad Dragulescu will go further to accommodate younger pioneers who direct Shakespeare with modern and contemporary interpretations and new theatrical aesthetics relevant to our rapidly changing times. 

*Yun-Cheol Kim, PhD, served as President of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC) from 2008 till 2014. During his presidency he launched IATC’s webjournal Critical Stages in 2009. Now he is an honorary president of the association. He served as artistic director of the National Theatre Company of Korea for four years from 2014 till 2017. He retired from the School of Drama, Korean National University of the Arts in 2015, where he taught for twenty years and is now its honorary professor. He received the Cultural Order from the Korean government in 2008. Two-time winner of the Critic of the Year Award, he has recently published his thirteenth book, Promenade into Contemporary European Theatre in the 21st Century.

Copyright © 2024 Yun-Cheol Kim
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