We Brits are very suspicious of Calixto Bieito, the Catalan director. His work generates a deluge of publicity here, because he goes in for a lot of drugs and nudity in most of his productions. Critics imply that it's attention seeking. And, yes, Hamlet in Bieito's new production, which opens at the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow, does lower his trousers and show his bare bum as he has intercourse with Ophelia on a black leather armchair, before consigning her to a nunnery.
The 39-year-old director's Don Giovanni at English National Opera (which attracted a new young audience despite, or perhaps because of, the critics) was set beneath a row of harsh concrete streetlamps on a bleak industrial estate - or perhaps it was just outside a sports stadium. It started with Anna having sex in the back of a family saloon, graphically heaving and shaking. Elvira was a chocolate-obsessed bulimic. Gary Magee's cheeky Giovanni was hooked on coke, and the sniffing and bloody noses were as graphic as the fellatio. Bieito's Un Ballo in Maschera was mild by comparison, though the most memorable image was of conspirators sitting on a row of toilets.
But Bieito's productions are meant to be provocative as well as energetic. His aim is to refresh the piece, to do it anew, to defamiliarise it. What's especially interesting about this Hamlet is the fact that it's his first echt Shakespeare staging in English - and the tension between classic, familiar poetic text and situation and character is what the theatre, surely, should be all about. The cast for Hamlet, which will also show at the Birmingham Rep in September, are a fascinating mix of right-on streetwise and plangent bourgeois.
As always in Bieito's work, there are numerous thought-provoking details and frequent unforgettable moments, such as the return of Laertes from Paris, laden with presents and floating balloons, eager to get back into the party that is the perennial context of life at the Danish court (and that's certainly an authentic reading of the text). A sense of the tyranny behind the party atmosphere, a fascination with the self-congratulation and celebration that tyranny always seems to permit and encourage, is one of Bieito's most characteristic and important perceptions - and a factor common to many of his productions.
They had already been rehearsing for seven weeks when I interviewed Bieito. His English is imperfect but practical - his dramaturge, Xavier Zuber from the Hanover Opera, who also worked on his Il Trovatore there and is doing La Traviata with him in September, is perhaps a touch more fluent. Much more interesting than any nudity or violence, or indulgence by the characters in drugs or alcohol, in his Shakespeare productions is their location - the reimposition of a sense of the classical unities of time and place on the Bard's epic discursive narrative. It is usual with Hamlet not to perform the whole text. In fact, it more or less has to be butchered to fit it to a length tolerable to modern British audiences. Bieito, not being British, is free of the whole tradition of Bardolatry. And he wants audiences to experience Hamlet as if it were a brand new play. There's a bold hostage to fortune.
Bieito made his version in the 12 days before rehearsals started, on the computer in the Birmingham Rep office. Of course, he knew what he wanted to achieve with the text - there'd be different motivations, different explanations for some of the words. "I started thinking, this will be a microcosm of a royal family, a metaphor of a rotten royal family that relates to the state of things in the world very readily." For Bieito, Horatio is a reactionary, manipulating the way Hamlet sees the world. "When Hamlet rapes Ophelia," Bieito explains, "it is to destroy her, because he feels she is a liar. But she's still in love with him. She is, in fact, a victim - of the powerful liars in the ruling older generation."
Bieito has placed the whole work in a kind of piano bar that is part of the palace - and the word PALACE in lurid pink fluorescent lights will dominate the set. The Danish royals are keen on this bar, to which there is only privileged access. Free drinks on a table. Comfortable, modern, black leather armchairs arrayed in ranks. Microphones for singers and speakers, useful sometimes in a play where every word tells. A not very tasteful carpet. And the whole show will be lit in a very striking and surrealistic way.
Piano music and a number of songs are interspersed between the scenes. They are played by the family pianist, a professional singer and musician. Gertrude takes over the piano - and goes on playing while Ophelia does away with herself. Bieito is paying an appropriate homage here to Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: demonstrating the bourgeois ability not to see what you shouldn't or don't want to see. "I wanted to include songs to refresh the audience. The function of the pianist is really to entertain the audience, to relax them so that they can listen better."
Bieito explains, "I use the text in a modern dramaturgical context. I am manipulating the words - this gift Shakespeare gave us - to talk about these characters, and about human beings generally. Of course, it is a totally misogynistic play. Gertrude is a victim, too. Hamlet is exceedingly egocentric. He keeps saying that he's in a prison - but he is so free in his mind that, for me, he has total imaginative liberty in this 'prison'. When finally he says he's dead, it's because there's nothing more he can do. He cannot have any further thoughts. The rest is silence."
Bieito loves Montaigne, and is sure the Shakespeare of Hamlet was crazy about him too. "I was going to interpolate some Montaigne text in the play, but there's enough Montaigne at second hand with the words of Shakespeare. Of course, you cannot do all 100 per cent of this piece - it is such a huge account of the anguish of the human condition. I want it to be like a dark thriller. The clothes will be modern and very smart: what royals with money would wear these days. So I provide an intimate space with a piano to sing, to dance, to have fun, to drink. There's an obsession in the piece with drunkenness. It's like a film noir - sometimes very surreal. The whole production takes place in a single night. It's never day. They never see the sun. We'll have four fans revolving the whole time."
The story is as it is. "I respect it. It's a good story. As director you need to be exact and specific with the intention and consequence of every word that is uttered. Sometimes I move parts of the text around so that it can always be owned very clearly by the actors and characters who use it. The essence of the play is to be a discussion. 'To be or not to be' is now a discussion with the dead body of Polonius. It's rhetorical, because Hamlet knows that neither Polonius, of course, nor the audience will supply answers. All the soliloquies by Hamlet are performed complete and uncut, but often reallocated to different places in the story. They are the essence of the play and I respect their integrity, but since they are in unfamiliar contexts an audience may not immediately recognise that they are there complete."
'Hamlet' opens at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-473 2000) tomorrow; then at Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455) from 9 SeptemberReuse content