Javor Gardev’s Hamletat the National Theatre “Ivan Vazov” was a Chinese box of plays within plays, cine walls, dangerous hurdles of ramps [End Page 553]and troughs in the stage floor, moving metal constructions, rising and falling platforms, sound and fury, and water—lots of it. Yet, at the eye of this maelstrom lay an intense field of unexpected stillness, a spot for sharing thought and moral angst, and we, the audience, were at its center.
Set designers Daniela Oleg Liahova and Nikola Toromanov housed Gardev’s complex vision in a symbolic environment where the stage, orchestra pit and auditorium (including its upper level) were imagined as a continuum–– Hamletwas a theatrum mundi, but breathing with very Bulgarian concerns. A black drapery with a gaping doorway reduced the depth of the auditorium, giving it a claustrophobic feel. In a mirror image, a red curtain with a similar opening blocked the proscenium arch so that the apron stage and the shallow pit formed a space close to the audience, where the personal relations in Elsinore were played out. A row of red swivel chairs resembling those of the spectators, set along the proscenium frame, separated this area from the upstage world of cutthroat politics.
A metal gangway, placed slightly above the audience’s heads, connected the auditorium and stage doorways. This was the domain of the Ghost in 1.1, 1.5, and 3.4, and, in 3.2, the place from which he watched “The Mousetrap,” sustaining tension between the past, which stole upon us from behind, and the present, which was both on the stage and around us. Here, too, throbbed the true human heart of the production. Right in our midst were set all of Hamlet’s monologues, Ophelia’s slow walk to her grave (at the end of 4.6) and Claudius’s searing, heart-felt prayer (3.3). From here, with the house lights on, Hamlet advised the players that the mission of theater is to “hold a mirror up to nature,” even when playing to an audience “capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise” (3.2.10–11): elements in which the production, with a characteristic postmodern irony, abounded.
With the red curtain up, one could see the gangway continuing all the way to the upstage wall, which, when not blocked by a metal structure, was also a cyclorama. That space was a maze of sliding walls, stairs and ramps stretching—we discovered—over lethal watery depths: an angular world in a state of flux and decay, where the public political scenes (1.2, 5.2) and all deaths took place. A fearsome “Mousetrap” (3.2), performed on a huge platform that rose from the floor, with winged figures standing tall and mysterious on metal towers, was also set there. To the sounds of deep strings, dancers performed the dumb show ending in the stunning image of a body bathed in blood and an ominous dark shadow on the screen. The projection opened up yet another performance space and created a three-ply metatheatrical moment for the ultimate revelation. [End Page 554]By placing the court in the swivel chairs along the proscenium arch, their backs to the spectators, the production aligned the points of view of the characters and the audience, which included the Ghost on the gangway, and foregrounded the medium of theater in its various forms, old and...