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Timeless doubt in French Hamlet: 7 dilemmas for Christiane Jatahy.

To exist or not to exist, to be there or not to be there: the Hamlet adaptation to be seen during this Holland Festival puts the necessary spin on William Shakespeare's over-familiar 1602 play. Director Christiane Jatahy takes a female approach. Her Hamlet is not the young Danish prince who must avenge his father and has doubts. 

Shakespeare's Hamlet pretends to be mad to postpone the deed. Jatahy's Hamlet is a grown woman who wonders if she acted right at the time, as a man. Would she make choices like her former self?

The show takes place in a modern setting, reminiscent of a chic flat in Paris or a villa on the Côte d'Azur. There are cocktails being drunk, danced to contemporary music by all the people following the latest fashion,

The Hamlet in this mock world is a woman, outsider since she is doom-scrolling through the news. Her father, dead, turns up in a holographic depiction of a soured party. This womanised Hamlet speaks to us, in the audience. We are her best friend, she addresses us as Horatio. We, in the audience, are intimate witnesses, co-players in a timeless drama of revenge and doubt.

In the text adaptation, the most important texts were left for the female roles. Mother Gertrud, Beloved Ophelia and Hamlet try to break the cycle of male violence. Whether they really succeed in doing so? Either way, it makes for some memorable theatrical moments in this performance where film and theatre are equal. 

The conversation I had with the associate artist of this Holland Festival, after a performance in Paris, I summarise for you in seven choices for Christiane Jatahy. 

Male or female?

"In history, many women have played Hamlet. The great Sarah Bernhardt even felt that Hamlet could only be played by a woman because male actors were not sensitive enough for the role. I make a different choice. I ask the question: what if later, as a woman, Hamlet looks back on the deeds she did as a man? I also made the roles of the other women in the play larger. Ophelia, Hamlet's lover, and Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, have become much more important to the story. The men are absent or reduced to side characters."

Theatre or film? 

"I am now at the point where I have been integrating film and theatre from the very first idea. I also work with my technicians from day one to make the film images completely equivalent to the actors on stage. That holographic effect requires a lot of technical ingenuity because the effect has to be equivalent for all viewers in the theatre. Apart from manipulating the images, we also have to ensure that the recorded image matches the live play on stage in lighting. To avoid having that effect now only from a small area in the auditorium, I now use mirrors. Those sitting left or right will see something different from those sitting in the middle, but those mirrors make sure they don't miss anything of the essence of the performance. They do have their own image. Especially in the scenes where live acting coincides with projected characters, that works very well."

Family or world?

"This family is the world. What happens on the small scale of a living room happens in the world. The things people do to each other, to each other, have global implications."

Friends or strangers?

"Polonius, houseboy and his daughter Ophelia, Hamlet's lover, speak Portuguese. They are immigrants from a country that is in Europe but never really taken seriously. I am from Brazil myself, but so these characters emphatically do not speak Brazilian. In this case, I was thinking of Portugal and not Brazil. Portugal is a country on the periphery, where people have to struggle enormously to meet the European standard. That struggle is also what these two characters are fighting. They do not belong to the French establishment in which this Hamlet plays." 

War or peace?

"It is almost impossible to imagine how close the war will be in 2024. You don't want to think about it, but it's there as soon as you turn on the television, open the newspaper or access the internet. I wanted to incorporate that element into this piece. That's why you not only hear documentary news, but also see images of wars, not only in Ukraine, but also in Serbia. It's about wars in the past, the present, but also future wars."

"The struggle in this family is the harbinger of that war, on a small scale. At the end, space is changed beyond recognition. The old world is dead, the space destroyed; it is a turning point in history. The characters cannot go on as before. My three main characters have to explore their new options." 

Optimist or pessimist?


To be or not to be? 

"Everyone who starts working with Hamlet wonders: how do we do it with To be or not to be? It's the speech of speeches. Existential doubt. To be or not to be? The question keeps coming back in my piece because time is not linear. Things exist simultaneously. The doubt is always there, the reflection is always there. The monologue returns three times, but each time with a different approach. In the beginning, my Hamlet confides in the audience, she builds a relationship with them, later it is an existential dialogue with her mother. This is how I work with repetition in all my plays. The question is never answered, but we will always ask it."

"Hamlet, in the folds of time", directed by Christiane Jatahy, can be seen from 21 to 23 June 2024 at ITA's Rabo Hall. Information and booking.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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