Festivals are interesting experiences in which to partake during a vacation, offering insights into the culture, glimpses into the past, and often times allowing visitors to explore sites otherwise unseen. Knowing that Copenhagen was on our list of upcoming cities, we found a unique festival that stood out from the crowd. Typically Shakespeare is associated with plays at London’s Globe Theatre, however one play in particular has a strong link to Denmark and is celebrated each year during a nine day Shakespeare Festival.
A train carried us 50 kilometers North from Copenhagen to Kronborg Castle in order to watch Hamlet play out at its true home, just as Shakespeare intended. You see, “Hamlet” is an abbreviation of the full name “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” and here we were, at the former castle of The Prince of Denmark himself!
Kronborg Castle is located in the town of Helsingør, Denmark and allows a view across the smallest crossing of the Oresond Straight toward the harbors of none other than Helsingborg, Sweden. When writing the play, Good Ole’ Will used the town’s name as inspiration and instead of “Kronborg Castle” he names Hamlet’s home “Eslinore Castle.”
We arrived in Helsingør early afternoon and spent the day wandering through the town’s quiet streets and visiting its expansive library long enough to take in a few short films playing in their bean bag chair filled theater.
Throughout the afternoon, we found many unique personalities in and around the castle. I enjoyed a conversation with a local artist selling his photography in a small studio, and he told me about the helicopter rides he was able to take in order to capture Denmark’s expansive array of geometrical shapes, found amongst the easter egg colored homes as well as in the circled crops of neighboring farmlands. I stopped to take a picture with Hamlet’s dear friend Horatio, and asked him in my best English accent whether we should smile or stand proud. He suggested we attempt to combine the two and I willingly obliged. He then pointed us in the direction of the well known and well hidden character of Kronborg Castle: Hogier the Dane. He sits in his fierce viking form in the below-ground casemates, and according to legend will rise if Denmark’s safety is ever threatened, at which time he will rise to action and save the nation.
The characters we met and the clear day of sunshine and casual walks through royal grounds were leading us up to the anticipatory four hour play we were to enjoy at dusk. We left the castle for dinner, and returned in time to settle in with our fellow Shakespeare seekers.
Before us, packed onto a small elevated stage, stood pianist, guitarist and percussionist along with the band’s lead singer, all four moving to the beat of Shakespeare’s written word. The crowd was delighted at their talent, but held aback by this rather peculiar welcome: a rock band certainly was not what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote this play at the turn of the 17th Century.
Finishing their first number, we all waited in anticipation for the play to start.
But first, another song by the Kronburg Castle Rock Band. Behind them, costumed actors rushed between the castle’s courtyard and up a spiral staircase, anxious as the age-old script played round in their mind, and preparing for the play’s true commencement. Suddenly, an actor interjected, crossing atop the stage between band members. A quick discussion was held by two of the men, then the actor retreated to his castle.
It seemed a wee bit unprofessional, I thought.
The band was soon enough well into their third song. Would they ever finish? Wrapped tightly in red fleece Ikea blankets which had been handed to us at the entrance, we were doing our best to not only stay warm, but also to stay patient.
Then we realized.
This was the play.
This was Hamlet!
The four-man rock band standing on stage before us were not the opening act, they were the actors. They were playing out the scenes! How peculiar, how rare… how creative!
The first act continued with only a handful of actors seeming to engage in the true Shakespearean script while the four others stayed on the elevated stage, strumming and singing to tunes worthy of pop radio, had pop radio existed 400 years ago.
Did I mention, this was all done in German? Yes, German.
We were in Denmark after all. (Don’t think too hard, it might hurt!)
Shakespeare was either rolling in his grave or tapping his toes.
Once the above-ground audience realized the idea behind this rendition of Hamlet, everyone was fully engaged. The acting was impeccable, the music was vivacious, and the classic story was told in a modern way. Actors played off of each other and their surroundings, stopping at times to admire flocks of birds flying overhead and reacting to strong winds circling through the courtyard and whisking away props.
An intermission provided time for all to exit the castle’s main courtyard and make their way to a garden where hot coffee, tea and wine were served. The second half of Shakespeare’s longest play was less musical and more dramatic. Yorick the Gravedigger made an appearance, his famous skull held high in the hands of Hamlet in the iconic gesture soon after the band’s stage had been cleared of electric guitar and drum set. Movements and motions of the cast were so captivating that their Germanic speech went unrealized and I fell deep into the story line, only occasionally glancing at a subtitle flashed on the projector or missing a laugh had by those who recognized the language more fluently. Audience members remained on the edges of their seats, never knowing what to expect. A song? A dance? A murder?
To see this classic play performed on its original grounds was a spectacle in and of itself, made more unique by the language in which it was spoken and the force in which it was sung. Upon its completion, the entire audience rose to its feet as actors, and band members, took an elaborate final bow.
And in case you are wondering, although the entire script was spoken in German there was one line which Hamlet yelled out in its original English form:
“To be, or not to be: That is the Question!”
Would you like to spend a night with Shakespeare? This year’s guide to the Shakespeare Festival can be found here. Enjoy! http://www.kronborg.dk/english/whats-on/shakespeare-festival-2015/
To learn more about Hamlet’s history at Kronborg Castle and purchase tickets to any of several events, check out HamletScenen: http://www.hamletscenen.dk/uk/