Ralph Fiennes and Indira Varma

Sein oder Nichtsein

What a pairing Hüller and Fiennes would make

On Theatre

This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s unusual for actors to vault Europe’s many language barriers — and end up with a lead in an Oscar-winning film. But Sandra Hüller is a breakout German talent, an actress from the post-Wall era who exudes a mix of modernity in her uncluttered style and androgynous cool.

British audiences will most likely have seen her as the emotionally stunted wife of a concentration camp commandant in Jonathan Glazer’s chilling dissection of deathly fanaticism, The Zone of Interest, or as the ambiguous suspect in the spine-tingling French legal drama, Anatomy of a Fall. In her home country, however, Hüller is as well known for her stage acting as for award-winning cinema.

Kudos to a talent who could now have her pick of any number of lucrative roles, given her multilingual flair (as well as her native tongue, she has English and French), but remains one of the company at the Bochum theatre in the Ruhr.

Theatre nights out in translation is a bit of an ask of Anglophone audiences, but stay with me. The best German playhouses, from Bochum, whose theatre and university are renowned centres of Shakespeare study; to the classy Deutsches Theater in Berlin, have added surtitles in English to widen audiences.

Seeing Hüller act in the too-solid flesh was also a draw to get my non-German-speaking other half to spend a weekend in the Ruhr (which is more fun than it sounds, being an interconnected centre of music, theatre and the arts and easy get to). Plus, even small-state devotees might thrill to the lure of subsidised theatre tickets after the galloping inflation of the West End, where tickets for shows with glitzy leads can be £400-plus a pop.

This Hamlet is in part a truncated version of the original, with smatterings of Heiner Mueller’s artful 1970s deconstruction Die Hamletmaschine interwoven. Johan Simons directs, and Elsinore is a featureless white box of a stage with a slowly revolving sculptural feature and a white moon above it — the way an expressionist painter might have set the scene of isolation that pervades the play’s forlorn world.

Hüller’s Hamlet is gauche, cynical and lost in a world of deceit from the moment the play opens. It’s court intrigue for hipsters, with some cheeky unstitchings of the text to reveal or reinvent or highlight aspects for modern psychology: Hamlet’s love affair with Ophelia is really over by the time we meet them, two victims, attracted in despair, rather than by romance.

Laertes canters around in ADHD intensity, mistaking action for impact, and the comings and goings of servants and messengers are reduced to a single dancer-actor who canters on and off stage.

Paring down the action to the clash of Hamlet and his stepfather, however, means that some emotional layers are cut back. Even a cynical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear their parts with the shrug of extras who didn’t ask to be involved in this murderous mess, but knew better than to say no.

One of the very few weaknesses of the original is a helter-skelter final scene of poisonings, sword slayings and fateful misunderstandings. Simons dispatches with this mortal pile-up and simply has the messenger read out the death toll and who dispatched whom. At that point, the cast emerge wordlessly and arrange themselves as corpses around the stage parameter.

Without Hüller’s luminosity, it might just have been another vaguely puzzling radical overhaul of an old favourite. With her, it’s a star event and one that showcased the versatility of an artist who may well end up as the best-known polyglot German actor since Bruno Ganz.

Sandra Hüller as Hamlet

At home, one of the weaknesses of “A-list vehicle” theatre is that many devotees cannot fork out the ticket premium this commands. Happily, there is an economy-class solution via film screenings. One of the few pluses of the post-pandemic era is the marked improvement in the quality of these.

Simon Godwin’s Macbeth, with a script tightened in Emily Burns’s adaptation, has Ralph Fiennes as the martial self-delusionist. We gather here with shifting camera angles amidst the detritus of war: burned out vehicles, abandoned tanks and makeshift camps.

The three witches who deliver punning prophecies to Macbeth are dirt-streaked refugees. The premonitions of toil and trouble neatly segue from odd incantations to a pretty reasonable sense — given the corpses, crows and never-ending wars of Holinshed’s Chronicles — that disaster is imminent.

Fiennes is a consummate Shakespearean, and his Macbeth delivers the soliloquies in an off-hand manner, teased and teasing with the witches and greeting the manifestation of the curse as Birnam wood marches towards Dunsinane with the semi-amused shrug of a man who might as well have (literally) the last laugh.

Indira Varma’s Lady Macbeth is an icy opportunist and the Macbeths’ home — “What, in our house?” — morphs into a chic brutalist residence, where servants glide in and out, disassociated from their masters. As the killing increases, blood starts to drip and then course down the walls: a visual flourish which fits the way Shakespeare’s text brims with similar allusions.

The point of tragedy is that there is no viable option for return — neither from Elsinore nor from the witches’ blasted heath. But what a pairing Hüller and Fiennes would make — intelligent stars, twinkling in the vast dome of entertainment dross. It’s only a matter of time.

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