“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” an officer declares in a Hebrew version of “Hamlet,” and the Israeli audience shifts uncomfortably in its seats.
In this modern version of the Shakespeare classic, the audience and the actors are acutely aware of how relevant the centuries-old tale of corruption and tragedy feels at a time of deep national malaise in Israel because of several high-level government scandals and questions about how last summer’s war in Lebanon was handled.
Director Omri Nitzan compares Hamlet’s indecision to the very questions the nation has faced since it came into existence — for example, whether or not to strike forcefully and immediately at those who might threaten the country or consider a more cautious range of responses while weighing the moral consequences of any action.
“Whether it’s good to be left or right, it’s the Israeli question,” Nitzan said. “The answer is not clear, but the question is there. That’s what makes Shakespeare so realistic — he’s a modern writer concerned with the human drama. It crosses the barriers of time and of language, in our case from English to Hebrew.”
Nitzan said the production is very Israeli in its nature with its frenzied tempo, emotional pull and political sensitivity.
The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv is bringing its production of “Hamlet,” now in its second year of sold-out performances, to the American stage for the first time in early March. It will be performed at the Shakespeare in Washington Festival following several performances at Shakespeare festivals in Europe.
The British Plays International Magazine described the production as “undoubtedly the best thing the Israeli theatre has seen in years.”
Performed in modern dress against the backdrop of rock and other contemporary music, the production fully involves its audience, which takes in the play from long rows alongside a stage set up like a catwalk. Spectators sit in swivel chairs to see the action, which surrounds them from the main stage as well as all sides of the theater.
In Washington, an English translation will appear on the walls.
The Cameri decided to stage a contemporary Israeli version of “Hamlet” more than two years ago, as the country was preparing for the withdrawal of Jewish settlements and army troops from the Gaza Strip. At the time there were fears the pullout might lead to massive violence between settlers and their supporters against security forces — fighting that might even lurch into a civil war.
The conflict within one political family that led to bloodshed and a type of civil war on stage in “Hamlet” inspired the theater to stage the production.
Today the political landscape has shifted and a wave of corruption scandals is preoccupying the country. The theme of corruption in the play — moral and political — strikes a salient, if different, chord for recent audiences.
Hamlet deals with “the daily life of a kingdom and the relationship of the people towards the ruler, his family and corruption,” said Noam Semel, the director general of the Cameri, Israel’s largest theater with nearly a million audience members a year. “All of this is relevant to the issues of our day.
“Corruption exists everywhere in political life,” he said. “It’s not only typical in Israel, but Israel should be proud that it is judging and examining it.”
The resignation of the Israeli police chief this week after he was implicated in an investigative report about the suspicious police handling of a case involving a notorious crime family came on the heels of the resignation of the head of the tax authority, who is being probed for influence peddling.
Among others being looked at in various corruption scandals is the prime minister’s bureau manager and the finance minister. Israelis have been especially agog at possible rape charges against President Moshe Katsav. Meanwhile, the former justice minister, Haim Ramon, was found guilty recently of kissing a young female soldier against her will.
The charismatic Itay Tiran, 27, plays Hamlet and is described in a review by Yediot Achronot as a “very Israeli Hamlet,” a “kind of post-modern culture hero who seeks to eradicate the mendacity of the sated and corrupt kingdom, which mirrors our own aggressive and self-righteous society.”
“The theater is a vehicle of social relevancy and for understanding ,” Semel said, describing the decision of the Cameri to stage productions with contemporary political and social themes, such as Israeli-Palestinian relations, as well as plays that grapple with the memory of the Holocaust and Israeli wars.
The play begins with the audience and the actors on stage rising for the new king. A large framed photo of the king is hung on the wall next to the throne, looking very much like a campaign poster or the type of official portrait that might hang in the Israeli government offices of the prime minister and president.
Claudius, the king, is wearing a white suit and is accompanied by his new bride, the past and present queen, Gertrude, in a white satin dress and sunglasses. They are on their way into a dance hall pounding with disco music to celebrate their wedding.
Hamlet enters, tears staining his cheeks. He refuses to enter the wedding celebrations.
” ‘Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed,” Hamlet remarks.
By the end of the play, the poisoned king gags on the same microphone from which he had offered rousing patriotic speeches at the beginning of the play, and the stage is littered with dead bodies.
“A war of brothers is disastrous. You lose everything,” said Nitzan, looking as depressed as Hamlet.