I saw the most remarkable production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen and did not understand a word of it

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March 14, 2018
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January 26, 2020

Hamlet and Us was developed by Laboratorul de Arta, a collective within Bucharest of dancers, actors, singers and those new to the stage. The group was founded with the following mission: “. . . Human research is based on an authentic search from within and aims to express the human being in its truth and vulnerability.”  I find this profound given the vigor of the performance, and the unrelenting truth (without sentiment) I saw on stage. And, as a person who grew up in the avant-garde of New York, it has the feeling of the Living Theater or the pioneering dance troupe of Pina Bauch, yet it is imbued with a deep exploration of the text that is totally modern.  And, totally Romanian.

What is the unique thing that makes it Romanian? And, how can I, someone who just arrived to visit know of is unique to the place? First, Shakespeare in Romanian (I learned from this experience) is luscious. The language moves from being lyric and romantic to a battleground of directness that impacts you in the gut. Listening to a language you don’t understand often leaves you searching for a translator. In this case, I was happy to be lost in their world and language for it pulled me in emotionally to a point where I knew what the characters felt, and that is a feat of artistry. There is also the presence of the DNA of the Bulandra LAB (which Cojocaru, Ciobanu and Alexandru Darie founded together) as a legacy element, giving an edge and experimental excellence that ads heat to the work.

Whatever “it” is that makes it remarkable, or if it is because I know the play so well I simply did not care about the “What” — yet Laboratorul de Arta brought the questions, the chaos and the beauty of the text to us leaving me aware of the play – and plot! – in a totally new way.

Masterfully led as a laboratory-performance by Antoaneta Cojocaru, we are presented with a core company with “ghosts” who express the inner movement and conflict of Hamlet and Ophelia, and later multiple characters. This means the pace is unrelenting, there are intimate moments between characters only to be interrupted by the inner life represented by a storm of actors taking to the stage. In moments I felt I could not breathe or keep up, a totally new experience for Hamlet, a play one often wants to eat a sandwich and take a nap (and when you wake it’s STILL going!). In this case, Hamlet and Us dares us to keep up with them — keep up with the exploration of love, corruption, loyalty, and power. It moves at the speed of Hamlet’s mind and his cultures quick demise. It also moves at the pace of his ghost of a father who turns out to be the mastermind of a cultural downfall.

To say that Adrian Ciobanu is an acting god is not an American overstatement. As the ghost of the father, he moves without any sound, yet with a face full of pain pushes the characters into self-destruction exposing a truth in the text: if he is to be taken down, everyone is going down too. Equal to epic mastery is Cojocaru who also performs in the piece as a quiet ghost, or angel, or is she simply the presence (and pain) of empathy? She moves from character to character trying to guide them to better decisions, yet often is left looking shattered as they fall for the trap before them. Together, they bring a haunting to the play that is terrifying, while also forcing self-reflection upon the audience.  They haunt me still.

And, then, there is the cast. Laboratorul de Arta is an artist collective with an aim to create a space where artists of all genres meet, create, and develop community. Many of the artists are performing at The Bulandra, The Jewish Theater, and other mainstage theaters. Though they also choose to explore together, in this community. This is not an unusual thing, groups like these are popping up around the world as younger people look for meaning. Yet, in the case of Laboratorul de Arta they are also brilliant actors, supported by an unrelenting aim to be truthful, emotionally connected and to move slowly away from the fears ingrained in Romanian culture. I cannot name one actor or performer who did not do something fierce and true, without a whiff of sentimentality or “curtain chewing”.  This is a company of young artists who should be taken seriously, for we seriously need their voices and hard work to help us through this culturally terrifying time.

In the very last scenes, set like lyric ballet meets punk rock, bodies of a dead Ophelia are lifted and passed overhead in a dance of death. Yet, as each Ophelia lands, they catch hands and dance, smiling free of their pain. What does this say of who they are? What is Laboratorul de Arta telling us? That the only way to feel free is death? No, by the end they race us some more, like thoroughbred horses to the end of the play where we are forced to look at the monstrous plot of a dead father, an outdated dictator (replaced by another) with the voice of Romania’s late King Michael gently reminding us that we are the makers of our own history, we are the Romania (or the world) we choose to be.

As an “outsider” even I was left knowing I will never ask if I should “be” or “not be” the same way, again.

Hamlet and Us

A production of Laboratorul de Arta, Bucharest, Romania


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