Sunday 12 January 2020

Theatre Review: 4 x Hamlet (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

The sharing and doubling of roles has been a feature of almost all of the Łódź Film School Diploma shows I've seen so far (in particular Mariusz Grzegorzek's great devised extravaganzas Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki and Nie Jedz Tego! To Jest na Święta!) - an approach that allows a range of actors to put their individual stamp on a character that they may all have had a hand in creating.

As its title suggests, the second of the 2019/20 shows, 4 x Hamlet, directed and designed by Jaracz Theatre Artistic Director Waldemar Zawodziński, continues the trend but applies it, this time, to a canonical text. The production shares this mightiest, most demanding of Shakespearean roles between four of the graduating actors. (Well, actually eight in total, since the production boasts two casts, whom you can watch perform on separate nights.)

In relation to Shakespeare's play, this seems a particularly apt - and democratic - gesture: Hamlet is, after all, to quote Harold Bloom, "a character so various that he contains every quality." At the performance I attended, Rafał Kowalski, Dominik Mironiuk, Krzysztof Oleksyn and Jan Butruk appeared in the title role, forming a compelling "relay" that rejects a "consistent" approach (if such a thing is ever possible in the case of Hamlet) to instead emphasise the contrasting qualities of the multifarious prince. 

If anything, the conceit could have been taken further: how about giving one or two of the female actors the chance to take on the role too, huh? But Kowalski, Mironiuk, Oleksyn and Butruk all bring interesting qualities to the table. Taking on the early sections of the play, his first soliloquy delivered directly to a particular audience member, Kowalski conveys both the prince's melancholy isolation and his scathing wit as he pops Gertrude's mourning veil over his head; still, his most galvanising moment occurs in the brilliant staging of the first encounter with the ghost. Mironiuk (who was memorable as the MC in Nie Jedz Tego!brings a distinctive stealth savagery to the part, notably in the violence with which he turns on Rosencrantz and Guilderstern (a relationship that, it's suggested, goes beyond the platonic here) and, later, Ophelia. 

And Oleksyn is an absolute whirlwind, amazingly fast and dynamic in his movements, and equally dexterous with the language (the production mixes several Polish translations of the play); the closet scene, played between him and Victoria Zmysłowska's ever-imbibing Gertrude, is, as it should be, one of the evening's most intense and moving moments. 

The production itself provides a pacy, modern-dress context for the actors' committed efforts, with some illuminating ideas and also some questionable ones. Augmented by the between-scenes appearances of a posse of percussionists drumming frantically on barrels, the show seems to take its cue from those strident sounds; the early scenes are played with an upfront aggressiveness (plenty of shouting in faces) that sometimes cuts against the grain of the text. Far from a dodderer, tall, shaven-headed Michał Włodarczyk contributes the bolshiest Polonius I've ever seen, though his death scene - in plain sight here - is startlingly effective and disturbing.

Luckily, the tone is modulated as the evening progresses, allowing for some subtler touches and fine moments for Hubert Kowalcyz's well-drawn Claudius and Antonina Jarnuszkiewicz's exceptional, expressive-voiced Ophelia, who starts out in leather-jacketed, short-skirted stroppiness, succumbs to abuse, confusion and grief, yet still finds surprising strength in the character in a haunting performance. 

Complete with dressing room mirrors (where the Players pause to do their make up before delivering a Mousetrap with a touch of Drag Race about it), seating area (for the court to watch the Players' show and the final duel), plus a tomb at the front, Zawodziński's design nicely emphasises the themes of performance and mortality, while Maria Balcerek's costumes accentuate the notion of generational conflict, the suited older generation contrasting with the casually attired youth. 

A bold final flourish is somewhat fumbled, but, exactly ten years since Rory Kinnear performed the role for Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, Zawodziński and company provide one of the stronger stagings of the play I've seen since, and one that's far superior to Robert Icke's overpraised 2017 Almeida Theatre take, with its Bob Dylan songs and Andrew Scott's awful orgy of gesticulation. Zawodziński's is a production to be seen for its performances, for the power of individual moments, and, particularly, for its innovation in turning an iconic role from a star turn into a collective endeavour. 

4 x Hamlet returns to Teatr Studyjny next month. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska. 

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