Life In Berlin: Charlottenburg Couple Celebrates 400 Years of Shakespeare

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2016 is Shakespeare 400: April marks the 400 year anniversary of the Bard’s death, and major cultural institutions are marking the occasion from Warsaw to Dubai. The Folger Shakespeare Library is sending the First Folio out on an American tour, and King’s College is planning Shakespearean events all over the UK. From plays to lectures, it’s a worldwide, year-long party for lovers of William Shakespeare. 

Crowds of people wear William Shakespeare masks during the Shakespeare Birthday Celebration Parade in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Credit Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

In Berlin, no one fits that label like Heather Betts and Brett Dean. These two high-profile Berlin-based artists have been translating Shakespeare’s texts into visual art and music for over four years.

“Shakespeare now is the same Shakespeare in any other year, because he is always there,” claims Dean.

Betts adds, “Shakespeare is universal. He’s relevant in every time and space. That’s how I see it.”

Dean was the principal viola for the Berlin Philharmonic. He’s now working on as a composer on a major commission: an opera of Hamlet for the Glyndbourne Festival Opera. Betts has presented solo shows inspired by Hamlet in Berlin and Melbourne this year alone. Oh, and they’re married.

Visiting their Charlottenburg studio is like stepping into a loud and colorful world where Shakespeare’s texts are actually tangible. The shared space is filled with Hamlet paintings ready for Betts' new show and the storyboard for Dean’s opera. And even though they’ve been mulling over this play for years, it doesn’t look like they’ll be stopping soon.

A quill sits on a table at Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Credit Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

"I’m into my fourth year of paintings about Hamlet and I just think, 'Hang on. Weren’t there other subjects out there?'" laughs Betts. "I’m not stuck. I’m fascinated and thrilled with it, but the images keep coming into my head.” 

“Well, it's as you say. The deeper you go into it, the richer it gets, like an onion," adds Dean.

“Yes, and the more true it is," replies Betts. "You recognize yourself there all the time. Maybe that’s it."

Betts sees herself in Ophelia in particular, so much so that she devoted a recent exhibition to the character. Sculptures from the show are on the album cover of And Once I Played Ophelia, Dean’s string quartet with soprano. The pair insists that Ophelia is no shrinking violet. For Betts and Dean, Ophelia still has a lot to say. 

“For me she’s a very strong character," comments Betts. "When you set her beside Hamlet, he’s all about indecision, 'to be or not to be.' He’s always hesitating, and she’s exactly the opposite.”

“In this piece we’ve taken not only that she herself says, but words that are said to her or about her. And so the attempt was to paint a more complete picture, to see her from different angles," explains Dean. 

These new angles do make Shakespeare feel fresh, even 400 years later. But does the couple ever feel intimidated, riffing on one of the most celebrated writers in world history?

Betts answers, “I feel for opera or for painting. If we were to go to William himself and say, 'Is it okay if we take your ideas and translate them into these other formats?' I can only imagine he would say, 'Go for it.'"