David Gothard’s Hamlet: A Conversation.
By GERTRUDE GIBBONS.
IN 1999, IN the war-torn city of Pristina, David Gothard grouped together a diverse, cross-generational cast of seventy people and reopened the National Theatre of Kosovo. The response was so powerful that the cast toured to South Africa to perform Hamlet in Albanian at the International AIDS Conference in 2000.
Gothard had been artistic producer and director of Riverside Studios in the 1980s, working closely with Joan Miró, Tadeusz Kantor, Shuji Tereyama, Andrei Tarkovsky, Kathy Acker, Samuel Beckett, and many others. In 2019, he was awarded a CBE for his services to cinema and drama.
During my ongoing conversations with him about his work with Polish theatre, I noticed a repeated reference to Hamlet as his means of describing the significance of theatre in times of crisis. I had the privilege to talk with Gothard about this production and to see the striking and rare documents from his archive just before the second UK lockdown. We discussed his use of Hamlet in different languages and cultures, and how, during periods of social and political upheaval, he had been determined to use theatre as a vehicle for poetry, memory and emotional reconciliation. Whatever the obstacles, he believed and promoted the timeless value of theatre, something that felt all the more pertinent during this period of international crisis.
The following text is a reflection based on our conversations in-person and over email, and on the documentation he showed me.
‘THE OTHER WAS beating me saying, “So, you are an actor? Come on, play Hamlet for us!”’
A young Albanian, Luan Kryeziu, recounts his arrest in the street in the city of Pristina, a month and a half into the NATO airstrikes. ‘“You have the right to choose how you are going to die. Do you want us to cut your hands, to pull out your eyes, to cut your ears and tongue or genitals? You have a right to choose.”’ The armed Serbians argued fervently over who had found him first, who would have fun with him, who was the coward not wanting to kill him. ‘I lost all hope when I saw that the knife he was holding was stained with blood and I noticed that my body was also bleeding.’
But Kryeziu fought back and escaped, ‘And now I am in good health, much stronger, again in Pristina,’ he concludes his interruption of Hamlet’s soliloquy.1 He was playing a member of Hamlet’s company in the National Theatre of Kosovo, reopening on the edge of a new century, following the end of the Kosovo War. This production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written at the turn of a different century, c. 1600, was selected and directed by David Gothard and performed in war conditions. There were generators everywhere, the corridors filled with people desperate to work, and no money for props.
In the production’s programme notes, the Associate Director, Fatos Berisha, recounts the situation for Kosovan actors during the war, and the underground activities that led up to this performance. In 1989, with the abolishment of Kosovo’s independence, prominent actors of the National Theatre were fired and forbidden entry to the theatre. It was at this point the clandestine Academy of Arts in Pristina founded the Acting Department, and students and professors persisted with the training of a new generation of young actors and directors, performing at the Dodona Theatre, and other alternative venues. Berisha writes that, “at the peak of the war, Kosovan artists continued their activities in the refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania. At this time, Kosovan theatre functioned under the motto, Theatre in exile.” Making the perilous decision to participate at the International Theatre Festival in Sarajevo in 1998, a group of these underground actors gained the attention of Gothard who was chairing the jury and awarded their production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot a special prize. It was this group that formed the company for the Albanian production of Hamlet the following year. “And now in post-war Kosova, at the beginning of the new century, the National Theatre reopens with the world’s most famous play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with a company created by actors of all the generations,” Berisha wrote, optimistically marking the conclusion to Kosovan theatre’s journey through exile.
I’ve been speaking with Gothard, pioneering artistic director and theatre-maker, who was artistic producer and director of Riverside Studios in the 1980s when residencies thrived. I asked him about the initial response to this first post-war play at the National Theatre in Kosovo, brought there with funding from Britain’s Department for International Development, and its unconventional interpretation of Shakespeare. The performance, in an Albanian translation by Fan S. Noli, had provided the first opportunity to mourn publicly the losses suffered in the war, which had ended only months before. As director, “this is your privilege to trigger,” said Gothard, “because that is the role of ancient Greek drama.” Catharsis: the purification or release of powerful emotions enabled through art; Aristotle’s metaphor to describe the effects of watching a tragedy. Edi Agagjyshi, a young designer for the set, costumes and props, who had never previously been involved in theatre, says that the unexpected opportunity given by Gothard was extraordinary and enduring, and that “it was a crazy-beautiful experience for all of us…People were traumatised from post-war trauma but [were now] with hope.”2
At this meaningful turning point at the end of a war, at the end of a millennia, why Hamlet? Since reading Kryeziu’s story — his interruption of Hamlet’s soliloquy — I’ve been thinking about this threatening idea of the figure of Hamlet beyond the stage; that to prove he is an actor to those holding a gun to his head, Kryeziu must perform Hamlet. But this request to entertain his captors is part of a game; a symbol of choice, and the choice here is how to be killed. As Kryeziu tells the story at the National Theatre, he is in fact performing Hamlet on stage. In his interruption to the traditional Shakespearean soliloquy, his break from character, he recounts a different use of this figure of theatre, a disturbing abuse of it beyond the stage. There is a collision of time and imagery: the present instant on stage, the scene from the street, so recent, and the past ghosts of Shakespearean Hamlet. Hamlet becomes the actor behind the mask of the character, but appears to remain entirely in character, haunted by previous traces, voices, interpretations and exploitations of the emblematic character.
Gothard tells me about a particular culture of oath-taking in Albania, the fact that an unresolved family dispute from three generations back would still haunt the children of the present. Hamlet, Gothard says, is a great poem about identity; it questions revenge, “how to break the cycle.” This is the reason he decided upon the play. As he writes in the programme notes, the resurrection of a national theatre company where the older generations perform alongside the young is symbolic: “A new world; a new beginning: the tragedy unfolds or is held in check.” And this unfolding and pausing was reflected and emphasised by the production’s disruptions to the narrative. “You’d get halfway through a speech and somebody would describe what it was like going home and discovering that the enemy army had just desecrated the whole place and what it was like being deported, standing shoulder to shoulder in a train for six days.” These fusions of time, language, culture, brought a sense of the cyclical, where everyone is “reminded it can happen again; that it’s not just you.”
This was also implicated by the decision to have a cross-generational cast, so that the company was far larger than it might otherwise have been. It tied the familiar, well-known actors, from the theatre before the war to the new generation created during the war. “Old actors thought I wouldn’t look twice at them because we were the new generation but I decided to cast everybody.” This meant that instead of having just one father of Hamlet, all the famous senior figures of the theatre would play him as a chorus. The same with Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. In Greek drama, the chorus would take on the role of commentary, heightening the connection between audience and characters. Indeed, Greek tragedy itself had its origins in choral performance. The figures of Hamlet’s parents, the ghost who is supposedly his father and Gertrude his mother, are both elusive characters in Shakespeare’s play. It is significant that both these shadow-like characters were played by multiple actors as a chorus. With voices from older generations speaking in unison, these figures were not just a practical means to include everyone in the cast, but a strategic way of suggesting a reconciliation of past with future, and of using the elusive characters in the vehicle of a chorus, as though commentating on the cross-generational unification, and bridging its gap.
“Of course, you always get the usual complaints in rehearsal, in England too, which is that nobody will understand this,” Gothard says. “You have to believe in it, and then direct it in such a way that in every scene or for every great speech, there’s something that people can latch onto. And it’s curious how it happens, but it does; the communication isn’t in literal meaning, it’s in the emotive—it’s in this that poetry has a role.” This performance was not so much the story of Hamlet, but through its unravelling it was directed as a vehicle for emotion, image, memory. This idea appears in keeping with Jan Kott as he writes of Hamlet in Shakespeare our Contemporary, that it “cannot be played simply” and its genius “consists, perhaps, in the fact that the play can serve as a mirror.”3 Were the first-person recent-day interruptions to the Shakespearean text the instances for the audience to latch onto? Perhaps these moments of painful familiarity, held in a framework of theatrical familiarity, enabled the mourning they had not yet had the opportunity to release. The use of Noli’s Albanian translation brought the work and its relevance all the closer to this audience, and also meant that the wartime recounts punctuating the play did not disrupt the continuity of the Albanian language throughout the performance. In this way, Albanian as a language was the play’s consistent thread, and perhaps reflected the idea that language might be considered to define nationality and national unity. Members of the audience felt that the “to be or not to be” speech was indeed a comment on their own search for national and cultural identity. From the emotive response received, Gothard tells me he “made it work in the sense that it’s not about a story, it’s about people listening to something that’s difficult, that’s great poetry; through the rhythm and the images, it’s hitting them in their heart.”
I asked Gothard of his own take on choosing this play here; whether there was a particular source of influence from his own experience of the country and culture. In its direction, he said he personally simply wanted “to take this feeling of being in the most loved culture of my life.” Yet everywhere there seemed a curious paradox. “It’s a strange shock,” he explained, “that in the dead of night you walk through streets full of tanks.” There appeared to be something, an atmosphere provoking conflicting emotions, that Gothard gathered on his walks around the city, closely interacting with the local people, which influenced his direction of the production. Gothard’s rapport was also used by Canadian UN troops who, seeing he had a relationship with the community, would ask advice on a local custom. If, for example, they jumped at the sound of a gun at a mass funeral, lines of coffins wrapped in green, Gothard was able to explain it as a local custom over a dead body. In the frequent case of a bomb threat, they used his advice as to whether or not they should take it as a false alarm, or whether they might ruin a funeral over it. Like this, there was a constant fluidity between exchanges and relations outside the theatre and within.
The performance was taken into a different context, performed by the same Kosovan cast in South Africa. Coming across the rehearsals at the National Theatre of Kosovo, a documentary film crew (who had just arrived from making a documentary about a refugee camp in Albania) had been completely intrigued by it, a “light in the middle of all the darkness.”4 One of the two women forming this crew, Cheryl Johnson, ended up co-producing the tour in South Africa. Gothard was invited with the whole cast, despite the fact that many had had their identity documents destroyed during the war, to South Africa where their performance opened the arts programme of the XIII International AIDS Conference in Durban in 2000, titled “Breaking the Silence”. That it was performed here, in Albanian, showed the significations of the production extended beyond the language; the relevance and pertinence of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the context of the end of the Kosovo War in their language resonated outside. The play didn’t need a native language to evoke a singular adapted relevance in the audience. This suggested that Gothard’s comment that it was not about the literal meaning of the words spoken, but the emotions and the rhythm of the poetry, is all the more true.
Recounting his experience in South Africa, Gothard talked about the relationship between old and new, between different generations, and the sanctity of ancestors. When he first arrived, Gothard’s driver, much to everyone’s surprise, invited him to dinner. Just as Gothard was about to get out of the car, the driver asked him to wait: he needed to get the permission of the ancestors in order to take him into the house. Gothard said how privileged he felt then; to be included in what was meaningful and alive here. It reminded me of this Hamlet‘s cross-generational cast and choruses; those multiple voices representing the ghostly-figures of the protagonist’s parents. In Kosovo, the programme notes included quotations from recitations of regret, guilt, and the question of returning home, as well as the place or responsibility to one’s parents. And here, in South Africa, the presence and significance of parents and all the preceding generations was felt strongly.
Gothard’s relationship with Hamlet itself did not stop here, but continued further in different forms. In 2001, Gothard pursued the Hamlet project as a ‘portable suitcase Hamlet’, with Joseph Fiennes, touring Muslim China and Tibet, where they held the first ever theatre workshops in Llasa University.5 Then, in 2003, he directed the play in Arabic in Haifa, Israel, starring Saleh Bakri. This had evolved after finding a book about pre-Islamic poetry Gothard had found riveting in its exploration of the effect of poetry on their tradition in discussions of meaning, and the “eroticism of it all.” Gothard was determined to direct the play in Arabic which meant that, for this symbolic performance, people “would drive from Jerusalem for six hours” in order to be amongst its audience at the Al-Midan theatre. Bakri, in discussion with Nabila Ramdani, said that performing in Arabic rather than English was “an act of defiance,” drama being a “vehicle by which we could talk about the occupation and colonisation,” and Ramdani describes it as “an illustration of how great art is as much a part of Palestinian tradition as any other.”6
Gothard’s direction of Hamlet, across diverse cultures, languages, contexts, contained a consistency beyond the Shakespearean text or narrative. This was to present the play as a mirror, to bring about a collision of something unfamiliar (language or era) with something which felt close: a sense of questioning, of choice, decision and reconciliation; and of belonging, loyalty, and inheritance. The performance in Kosovo opened a National Theatre at the end of a war and the start of a new millennia, and extended beyond these borders, directed as a vehicle, the vehicle of poetry, as a means to mourn and rethink identity, in terms of nation, generation, and the individual.
Gertrude Gibbons is a writer based in London. She has written two novels—The Phaistos Disk (Ankrapath, 2012), and The Silent Violinist (Matador, 2021)—and a play, Plato’s Cave (Arcola Theatre, 2009) Recent articles appear in The French Literary Review, NERO Magazine, The Theatre Times, Still Point Journal and Witkacy! journal. In 2018, with Derek Horton, she relaunched Soanyway Magazine which she co-edits.
Thanks to David Gothard, Edi Agagjyshi and Cheryl Johnson for their recounts and correspondence. Photography by Edi Agagjyshi, courtesy of David Gothard and Edi Agagjyshi. This text was initially based on conversations with Gothard in London, October 2020-April 2021.
- Programme for Hamleti at Teatri Kombëtar, Prishtinë, Kosovë, designed by Albert Heta. Pages unnumbered.
- Email correspondence with Edi Agagjyshi, 9 April 2021.
- Jan Kott, “Hamlet of the Mid-century” in Shakespeare our Contemporary, translated by Bolesław Taborski. Methuen, 1967, p. 47-8.
- Gothard interviewed by Harriet Devine, July-November 2008, Part 6: The legacy of the English Stage Company, in British Library Sounds.
- This tour was made into the documentary Altitude (2005), directed by Martina Amati.
- Saleh Bakri interviewed by Nabila Ramdani, 10 June 2015, for Alarabiya news.