In Houvardas’ modern dress rendering of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, violence and eroticism – sometimes intertwined – abound; recurring instances of physical violence (alongside the violence of Shakespeare’s words) as well as sexually charged moments – often with incestuous undertones – make it a truly passionate production, which fails somehow to convey that passion to the audience.
Hamlet, staged by major Greek director Yannis Houvardas, has been one of the most longed for theatre productions of the season. The sold out show is produced by and staged, for a limited number of performances, at the state-of-the-art theatre of the Onassis Cultural Centre Foundation – a venue known for hosting high quality, diverse and edgy cultural events from around the world. Now addressing international audiences, it also makes Greek productions accessible to non-Greek speakers by providing English surtitles on certain dates.
Houvardas’ show is meticulously planned and executed to the detail. Most of the action takes place inside a small, chalet-like house; a chamber of secrets, where the protagonists hide their truth behind closed curtains – or from where they peek at other people’s secrets. It is a house that gradually disintegrates, leaving its residents unprotected and vulnerable. The music and the light design harmonically create the moody atmosphere of a psychological thriller.
Houvardas is blessed with a wonderful cast. Christos Loulis is gripping as Hamlet, navel gazing and devious, dour and cynical, affectionate and violent. Amalia Moutousi makes a truly memorable Queen Gertrude; utterly sexy in her low back black dress and her blonde wig, divided in her roles as a sensual lover and a loving mother. Yorgos Gallos is sturdy in the double role of King Claudius and the ghost of the late King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father; the latter seated in the same armchair, wearing the same clothes with the former, is a device that further accentuates Gertrude’s ‘foul incest’.
The most inspired moment of the show is probably the theatre-within-the-theatre scene: the troupe of travelling actors that Hamlet asks to play before the royal couple, are dressed exactly like Claudius and Gertrude and – instead of staging a play before the King and the Queen – they play moving around the room with them, making it difficult to discern between the character and its double.
The fine acting of the well directed cast and the accuracy of Houvardas’ presentation could have kept the audience captivated – if the show wasn’t overloaded with references and devices often clouding instead of unleashing Shakespeare’s words, in which the power and the poetry of Hamlet lies. I am not sure about the true functionality of the partly transparent curtains all around the stage, nor can I see what was the purpose of the metal construction on the right of the stage. If the show could work perfectly without them, and I think it would, then their existence serves no real purpose. Equally, I fail to see the purpose of the disinfecting crew, or the use of the microphone in the fencing scene; or, whether the house turning round and round and round was effectively made to look like “moving sand” – as the director notes in the theatre programme – or it was just an unnecessary distraction for the audience.
Overall, Houvardas’ Hamlet is a very interesting show that had the credentials to be a masterpiece, if only it was kept a bit simpler.