On Monday, Ukrainian student Sofiia Shyroka ’25 hosted a film showing of “The Hamlet Syndrome” with the approval of the Krakow Film Foundation. The 2022 documentary follows a Ukrainian theater troupe preparing for a play called The H-Effect, which centers around the experiences of five actors during the Russo-Ukrainian war, a conflict which has been ongoing since 2014 and produced devastating effects on eastern Ukraine. The troupe’s experiences of the war are related to Shakespeare’s infamously existential play Hamlet — in particular, the line, “To be or not to be.” Each actor performs a monologue that captures their unique experience in the crisis, whether it be as a woman, LGBTQ+ person or soldier. In addition to the actors’ monologues, the documentary shows footage of the many theatrical exercises the troupe practiced and real footage from the war in 2014, including footage of one member in Russian captivity.
Directed by Polish filmmakers Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski, “The Hamlet Syndrome” premiered at the Krakow Film Festival and went on to win numerous documentary awards. The actual, real-life play The H-Effect was performed before the film was released in 2022, but the documentary primarily focuses on the process of preparing for the showing. The play’s director instructs each of the actors to identify themself as Hamlet and attach to this identity something significant about them that makes them relate to the character’s famous existential question. One actor says “I am Hamlet because I am a woman.” Another says “I am Hamlet because I am crippled,” and yet another says “I am Hamlet because I am queer.” Each of the actors reflect on their unique experience in the war; one woman condemns with scathing contempt the tendency for European outsiders to exoticize her role in the Ukrainian military as a female soldier. Another soldier, named Slavik, shares with haunted eyes how he almost killed himself in a theater that was bombed by Russian separatists.
The exercises conjure intense emotions for the actors, and initially some actors resist them. One actor named Oksana expressed internal conflict over her immigration to Poland and frustration over people’s lack of interest for women’s rights in Ukraine. During a particularly stressful exercise in which she and another actor verbally battle one another by voicing new “I am Hamlet because…” statements, she abruptly ends the exercise, overcome with what she describes afterwards as intense anger.
In a particularly poignant yet subtle part of the documentary, Oksana is directed to sweep the Ukrainian flag over a person lying down, wrap it around and over her face and stuff it into her mouth. This performance would be done in the actual play, and the symbolic use of the flags incites a conversation about patriotism. The sentiment the documentary seems to portray on the subject is complicated; all of the actors feel deep solidarity with the Ukrainian effort to exert independence from Russia, and yet, patriotism is often accompanied by nationalistic attitudes that coexist with homophobic and misogynistic rhetoric.
One scene that stood out uniquely for capturing the heavy situations that occur during war involved a conversation between one of the actors, Katya, and her mother. While picking cherries in the Ukrainian countryside, the mother relates how she did not know her daughter chose to join the military until she saw her on TV sweeping a Ukrainian flag over a casket. Katya and her mother commiserate over the years of sleepless nights they both experienced during the war. “It’s better not to sleep,” Katya says, and her mother agrees.
After the film screening, Shyroka shared a three-minute video recorded after the release of the documentary from one of the actors. His name is Roman, and he shares that he is a paramedic on the frontlines of the war. The explosion of shells sounds in the distance. The video, recorded for audiences who will watch the documentary, is an important reminder to Western viewers that the war in Ukraine continues to rage, and that the existential question “To be or not to be?” remains a resonating sentiment to Ukrainians who are making sense of their national and personal identities amidst the invasion.