To See or Not to See?

Antonio Latella’s gender-bending take on William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” at Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato is a collective ritual that reminds us of how theatre is always alive by celebrating its power and history.

Antonio Latella’s production of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy returns with Federica Rossellini (pictured above) in the role of the prince of Denmark, a year after a brief run in Milan interrupted by the pandemic. Masiar Pasquali

Theatre pulsates with life, the whole experience gets under your skin and all the human passions and emotions are condensed in one piece. As theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once said: “The experience of watching a great play means that we sometimes understand more why we are alive.”

Hamlet is probably the most famous play by William Shakespeare, a story which is subject to all sorts of cliches: a sad man in tights holding a skull, self-indulgent, and navel-gazing. In fact, it is a very lively, curious, bright, vibrant story that is not about people predisposed to be manic-depressives but people struggling with the business of being alive. In this case: the grief of the loss of one parent, family crises, and the rivalry of men for the affections of women in a tight family group.

Shakespeare very cleverly – just as perhaps he would now if he was writing for movies – takes a popular form. Today it would be a thriller, then it was a revenge drama.

By the end of the play, you have witnessed a man in turmoil commenting and reacting in a sort of early midlife crisis to everything that goes on around him which involves his views on family, his views on religion, his views on war, and his views on politics. Audiences get to know an incredible mind dissecting all of this, as his emotions and his intellect are intensified and sharpened by the awful situation that he is put into. This incredible debate – about everything – celebrates the glories and the utter insignificance of humans in the cosmos.

A revival of “Hamlet”, directed by Antonio Latella and currently running at the Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato, a year after a brief run which was interrupted by the pandemic, is a total theatre experience. Latella’s take on this timeless classic takes us back to the time when it was conceived and is a moving tribute to the art of theatre.

A staging of multiple revelations, extremely rich in registers and surprises, of disarming clarity, between experiment and measure, and always ready to overturn itself in unexpected ways. Latella’s “Hamlet” is essential, and its essentiality is mirrored in the actors’ costumes – designed by Graziella Pepe. White tuxedos in the first three acts, turn into black Elizabethan gowns in the last two. 

Federica Rosellini as Hamlet in a scene of the fourth act of Shakespeare’s play. Photo by Masiar Pasquali.

Emptiness is transformed into meaningfulness, light into shadow. Federica Rosellini, who originated the title role in this production, gives a powerful performance. The gender switch, however, goes above any gimmick and instead serves as an additional instrument to release the expressive potential of the text, to make its power vibrate. Hers is not a troubled Hamlet but one of rebellious and combative strength, sharp, ironic, and desperately playful. Her performance also suits Latella’s pop twists, like when she mentions the music group Abba or the beginning of the fourth act which starts with Hamlet singing “Lamette,” a popular song about injuring oneself with the intent to die, by disco Italian singer Donatella Rettore.

The highlights of the drama – the famous monologue in the first scene of Act III and the tragic epilogue in Act V – are all reduced to the essential: the text. Latella chooses to concentrate on Shakespeare’s verses, zeroing in on the action in favour of contemplation.

However, there is no lack of twists and turns, like when Ophelia – superbly played by Flaminia Cuzzoli – takes her own life by drowning herself. In this production she dives into a hole filled with water in the middle of the stage, soon followed by her brother Laertes, played by Ludovico Fededegni, in a devastating coup de théâtre.

Ten actors, immersed in a space reminiscent of Elizabethan theatre and surrounded by a set design – imagined by Giuseppe Stellato – that is an integral part of the story, express all the nuances of the original text, presented in its full version, of about 6 hours. It is easier to watch Shakespeare’s structure in its entirety. It is, with no doubt, much more compelling because the audience gets a chance to allow the writer to alternate an intense moment with comedy, to quicken the pace just in time to slow it down again, giving you time to breathe.

The centrality of the text is underlined continuously thanks to the choice of including stage directions read at the microphone by Stefano Patti, who also masterfully plays Hamlet’s friend Horatio. Throughout Latella’s aggressively contemporary production, the small but extraordinarily capable cast offers all the subtle gradations of the tragedy and features: a noteworthy Anna Coppola as the ghost, the gravedigger, Fortinbras, and one of the actors; Michelangelo Dalisi as Polonius and Osric; Francesco Manetti as the king; Francesca Cutolo as Gertrude; Fabio Pasquini as Reynaldo, Barnardo, one of the actors and the other sexton; and the compelling Andrea Sorrentino who plays a bunch of parts including both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. 

The set design – imagined by Giuseppe Stellato for a space reminiscent of Elizabethan theaters – is essential but bold and an integral part of the story. Photo by Masiar Pasquali.

Entering the Studio Melato theatre looks like you’re travelling back in time. The architecture of the theatre brings actors and audiences together, precisely as it was in Shakespeare’s time. The audience sits alertly on the benches, and the degree of excitement, attention and energy that actors get from the seats is phenomenal. That connection almost physical and tangible is what makes the performances unique every time. Actors require extraordinary confidence and self-belief to play in this space because you can see everyone.

Watching the play here, the audience definitely gets a real sense of why these plays were written for theatres like The Globe in London. Actors are aware of what the audience is saying, thinking, or doing. Shakespeare wrote with this particular architecture in mind. He wrote for a theatre in which actors could see the audience. In most indoor theatres with lights, actors can’t see the audience. Here the audience is very much aware of being in an audience, it’s very much aware of being in a crowd. It’s like being at a festival or a carnival of some sort from the moment they enter the doors.

They come in and they start congregating. They start enjoying being in each other’s presence and it builds to a real wave of excitement that all actors then come in and join in with. The only exception is Ms. Rosellini who is already on the stage when the audience begins to enter. It seems thrilling on both sides. Audience members look at each other, their laughter becomes infectious and contagious. There are moments of stillness where the audience is completely unified.

Shakespeare has this wonderful way of going widescreen and then going into very tight close-up in his plays and this theatre is uniquely capable of matching those moments.

In Elizabethan times, theatres usually had only a chair or a bed that could be brought on and off the stage, but basically nothing like the sets to which we’re accustomed. Also, it had no curtain and no illusion.

As back then, at the Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato, there is a platform, and on the platform, there are actors, who have developed very powerful voices, as well as powerful memory. The tragedy is so long that even for them it is a challenge to keep their concentration for so long.

Costumes from previous Teatro Piccolo productions – directed by Streheler and Ronconi – serve as scenery for the second and third act. Photo by Masiar Pasquali.

Latella’s grand, and muscular direction, albeit surrounded by strong but essential sets, it is all about the work of the actors: intense, physical, material, and emotional, enriched by a celebration of the art of theatre, as in the scene in which costumes from previous Teatro Piccolo productions – directed by Giorgio Strehler and Luca Ronconi, including Arlecchino Servitore di Due Padroni” and “The Lehman Trilogy” – build a court that triggers the climax of the tragedy.

The single most valuable property that the actors owned in Shakespeare’s time was their costumes. In the 16th century, theatres paid much more for a good costume than they paid for a play. Costumes were valuable in themselves, and they were valuable symbolically because especially on a stage without sets, costumes conveyed many facets of a character and its transformations.

This celebration of costumes contains all the memory of the theatre. It gives life to all the expressive, revealing, and unveiling possibilities of a place where representation is at the centre of the universe and where the soul is the most authentic, thanks to a mysterious alchemy and human intellect. Marvels that theatre can still do when in good hands.

Hamlet. Through October 30 at Piccolo Teatro Studio Melato, Milan; 02 2112 6116, Running time: 6 hours, 35 minutes.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.