Every generation, Jan Kott argues in his seminal work Shakespeare Our Contemporary, should have its own Hamlet. For Kott and his generation, that Hamlet was a figure of the mid-century, a Hamlet in conflict with Stalinism. In fact, different environments and different cultures existing in the same historical period on two opposite sides of the world may have radically different social, artistic and cultural beliefs and needs this specifica differentiae is a crucial determinant of what makes a given performance “contemporary” and relevant to a given community.
So one approaches with wonder and confusion the events and the theatre in that part of the world once known as Yugoslavia. Faced every day with shocking images of death, destruction and brutality from that region of the Balkans, one might well ask: Who is or who could be a Hamlet for our time in such a theatrical space? Or: Where is Hamlet today in that environment torn apart, burned down, raped, ethnically cleansed and purged? Or: Amid such slaughter, is Hamlet possible at all?
I would reply that Hamlet is not possible there, and will not be possible there for a long time. This is why.
For many years in the former Yugloslavia, Hamlet tested his contemporaneity and validity in the splendid medieval Castle of Lovrjenac in Dubrovnik. For many of us who created theatre there, Lovrjenac that ancient edifice where, in centuries gone by, free spirits who spoke out against the autocratic rulers of Dubrovnik had been imprisoned was, and still is, the most attractive theatrical space in the world. “That magic fortification,” as one critic described Lovrjenac, “has been transformed into streets and squares, into ballrooms and brothels, into monk’s cells and dark graveyards without any kind of scenery.” For more than 50 years, countless theatre artists from all over the world imaginatively transformed Lovrjenac into the home of a contemporary Hamlet his Elsinore.
That was in the past. Today, an indifferent world watches other sad and horrifying scenes in the shadow of Lovrjenac’s walls. Dubrovnik’s Elsinore is deserted. Instead of seagulls and doves, black birds bearing death circle its towers. Here time is out of joint, noble Hamlet is overthrown, his theatre is dead, his people are betrayed, his country is devastated.
Lovrjenac is today the most truthful metaphor for an unhappy country that once had the chance to be an example to the world of ethnic diversity, multicultural coexistence and integration. There was something rotten in that state of lost illusions: more rotten politicians than true artists, more rotten “fathers of nations” than true patriots. These senile ideologists and demagogues have taken over the people’s hearts and minds and turned the wheel of history backward to barbarism; preaching blood and soil, they have unleashed national extremism and terror, madness and hatred, blood and ashes.
Thus the theatre artists who once made Hamlet alive and possible in Lovrjenac were deprived of their Elsinore. Those who have grazed their skin on that magic castle stone, who have climbed its 193 steps twice a day for years to present the idea of freedom in various languages on its stage, who have braided their diverse ideas, cultures and talents into performance, are not there anymore. They are either in exile in their own ethnic environments or they are fugitives in the endless Western archipelago of marginal existence.
There are no credible actors left, one may say, in that disintegrated and fragmented space to perform in front of the “national fathers,” the usurping kings who “like not the comedy.” The theatre is expelled from these small and self-isolated islands of primitivism, and there is no one to present the play about the hypocrisy and violence of the rulers, about their tyranny and despotism. There is no one in dust-covered Lovrjenac to show these creatures the mirror in which to see their features. For these narcissists, who would like every artistic deed to glorify their national exclusiveness and their personal greatness, theatre is a devil’s art that must be purged from the community along with all that is not ethnically pure, not “ours.”
So in the strong directorial hands of the fatherland’s uber-directors, theatre and life have changed places. While the theatre is marginalized, life is theatricalized to the utmost. Pushed forward on that merciless stage, new actors dressed in full metal jackets perform their Danse Macabre in the ancient Balkan castle. Elsinore is left to Fortinbras’ mob, his “list of lawless resolutes,” drinkers and scoundrels, murderers and robbers who have made this part of the world into a Balkan beer hall smelling of sweat and urine. As for Ophelia in that male-dominated environment, Ophelia is just a thing.
These new actors have traded Elsinore’s freedom for a fistful of lies. The castle above whose main gate is wtitten, “Freedom is not for sale, even for all the gold on the earth” is in possession of ignorants and illiterates. On their road to our ethnically pure fatherland” paved by graves, they have transformed Hamlet’s home (“which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain”) into an endless field of ruin and despair. In some better future under the piles of stones, burnt flesh and ashes, some children will perhaps discover Yorick’s skull. And perhaps they will be afflicted by his theatre disease and his admiration of freedom. Perhaps.