When Berlin fell to the Allied forces in 1945, Heiner Muller's service in the German army ended. He returned to his home, then occupied by the Soviet Army. One war had ended. Another was beginning. Muller was 16 at the time. Mentored by Bertolt Brecht, Muller eventually established himself as Germany's premier playwright. The success of his translations of classic works as well as his controversial original plays allowed him to travel through Western Europe and even to America during the peak of the Cold War. His love of socialism, fear of capitalism, and hatred for dictatorships led him to write HAMLETmachine in 1986.
Brief though the text may be (12 pages or so, depending on the version), it is nonetheless epic. It has inspired productions that last days at a time. Directors tackling HAMLETmachine have employed the use of towering LCD screens, dozens of actors, and lavish sets in attempts to bring all of the nuances of Muller's dense script to life.
In the face of all the history and the high expectations accompanying HAMLETmachine, director Taibi Ann Magar has attempted something truly ambitious: she has cut away the pomp and pretension that surrounds the play, shifting the focus from the complex political mayhem to the emotional conflict between Hamlet and Ophelia.
The stage design is minimalist in the truest sense of the word. There are no sets, no backdrops, and no props, save for two chairs. Thus it becomes the actors' responsibility to create their own world and bring the audience in with them.
Jessica Pohly does just that as Ophelia. Not only does she deliver her difficult lines clearly but she also devotes herself wholly to the words and the subtext beneath them. This is most notably evident as she seemingly dies onstage during her monologue that begins "I am Ophelia. The one the river didn't keep." Critic Gordon Rogoff once wrote that the play might be better called OPHELIAmachine. Pohly does all that she can to support Rogoff's thesis, giving Off-Off Broadway a performance to remember.
Evan Lubeck looks the part of the brooding Danish prince, but finds himself overpowered by Pohly. That he occasionally struggles with his lines is forgivable in a piece such as this, but Lubeck's real flaw is a failure to grasp Hamlet's emotional landscape. His Hamlet is a perpetually angry one, with occasional but brief bouts of sadness and confusion (always evoked with the same furrowed brow).
To be sure, Lubeck is not at all a bad actor, nor is his performance intolerable. Though not physically imposing, he uses his tall stature effectively to command attention. His abilities are best used toward the end of the famous "Get thee to a nunnery" scene, as he allows Hamlet's self-disgust and contempt for his mother to come out in his attacks on Ophelia.
The success of good acting, as well as the fault of inconsistent acting, lies with the director. With her lead actor, Magar seems to have made the common mistake of interpreting Hamlet as indecisive; he is far from it. As a result, her Hamlet is unfocused and fails to reach his full potential.
Magar creates very beautiful and tense visual scenes using nothing but two actors, two chairs, and lighting design. Her actors' movements are carefully choreographed, and the mere twitch of a wrist or widening of eyes grabs the audience's attention. However, the actors shift back and forth between naturalistic behavior and Grotowski-esque calculation. They are ultimately limited by Magar's direction, often remaining stoic for aesthetic reasons when the text calls for actions more explosive.
But if Magar fails to understand certain sections of the text, she certainly does not fail to grasp the larger themes that the author expressed. Muller describes his purpose for writing as such:
"What I try to do in my writing is to strengthen the sense of conflicts, to strengthen confrontations and contradictions. There is no other way. I'm not interested in answers and solutions. I don't have any to offer. I'm interested in problems and conflicts."
HAMLETmachine is certainly no exception to this rule, and Magar sets Hamlet and Ophelia onstage to explore all of their conflicts without distraction. No solutions are presented, and none are necessary. The nature of the text is such that it could easily have been misinterpreted and misused (as it sometimes is) as a soapbox for narrow-minded, anti-consumerist propaganda. But Magar refuses to trivialize the world's complex problems by offering answers, making this interpretation of Muller's classic one worth watching.