Behind the Iron Curtain, Shakespeare’s plays were a way to send secret messages about Soviet society to theatre audiences. Now a Lithuanian staging of Hamlet - designed to make Stalin, who hated the play, turn in his grave - will be performed in the UK. Why do these 400-year-old plays resonate in the former Eastern Bloc?
When Lithuania’s biggest rock star, Andrius Mamontovas, was offered the role of Hamlet in 1996, he was rather surprised, but agreed to have a go. He has now played the prince for 15 years, and will soon perform the role in London as part of the UK’s cultural festival to mark the Olympics…
What has kept him going is Eimuntas Nekrosius, one of Europe’s most renowned theatre directors, and the special prestige Shakespeare holds in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
In Soviet-era Lithuania, there were productions of Shakespeare for which people queued through the night for tickets. Shakespeare was culture with official approval, but as one of the few alternatives to tales about earnest Soviet heroes, it was also a way for theatre directors to symbolically address forbidden issues. Going to the theatre had an excitement it perhaps lacks nowadays, says Mamontovas.
"I miss those secret messages… there were always little secret messages from the artist to the audience. But there’s no need for that now because you can say what you want openly - it’s more entertainment now."
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