Theatre review: Hamlet at the Dublin Theatre Festival
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Yaël Farber
Cast: Fiona Bell, Gavin Drea, Aoife Duffin, Nick Dunning, Peter Gaynor, Steve Hartland, Mark Huberman, Gerard Kelly, Conor Madden, Barry McKiernan, Ruth Negga, Owen Roe, Gerard Walsh
The Gate Theatre, Dublin
There are many ways of approaching Hamlet, such is the infinite richness of the work, such is the depth of the themes it takes in. Whether the emphasis is turned towards making a point about fear and paranoia living in a surveillance society, whether it's to examine questions of power and ambition or whether it relates to fundamental human questions and associated metaphysical matters of life and death, it's always better if you stick with one strong central theme. It does no harm either if you can rely on a strong central performance in the role of Hamlet. Without question, the Gate's current production, opening as part of the 2018 Dublin Theatre Festival, has something to offer on both those fronts.
It doesn't take too long to identify where director Yaël Farber chooses to focus her attention. Elsinore is a black room with no walls, only doors to the side and back. There's a waft of dry ice mixed with incense that emanates from a thurible at the centre of the stage as mournful figures dressed in black take to the stage for the burial of the King of Denmark. This is a production with a distinctly funereal outlook on Hamlet, on grief turning to madness, one that goes to the very heart of questions on existence and non-existence and whatever might lie between; questions that inspired Shakespeare to some of his most profound and darkest verse, and subjects that we still grapple with today.
While grief might be the primary focus of the production, all the other elements have to be drawn towards this central view and that's not neglected either in Farber's production. It brings them together and into the void by establishing an Irish theme or connection, with Catholic priests, bowler-hatted undertakers that look like they belong in a Samuel Beckett play, and a mild Irish lilt to the verse on occasion that sounds perfectly natural and lyrical. The burning of incense is however something of a masterstroke in this respect by adding another sensory dimension, a powerful effect that imperceptibly attacks the associative memory of a predominately Catholic audience. Contemporary matters relating to the balance of power between men and women, very much present elsewhere in this year's Dublin Theatre Festival could be made to fit but are not in the sphere of this production, or at least if not specifically, they are almost certainly there on some deeper level.
There's possibly a little more of an emphasis given to "the play's the thing", the acting of roles, the playing of parts, the ability of art and theatre to reveal underlying truths, but it can also be used as a way of both defining and breaking down barriers. Farber's production makes use of the relatively small Gate theatre to implicate the audience in the drama, having the King and Queen watch the players act out the killing of Hamlet's father from seats in the stalls. The drawing of curtains however has another side to it beyond theatrical, representing the divisions - sometimes translucent, easily crossed - between the living and the dead. The question of Hamlet's madness and how much of it is feigned remains ambiguous, by no means certain to the audience or Hamlet himself.
Yaël Farber sticks to a fairly conventional reading of the play but there are a few tweaks. There are three gravediggers or funeral directors who have a recurring role throughout the play here, wheeling in and taking away dead bodies. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose presence can provide the play with some lighter relief are not so much in demand for the purpose of this production and reduced to one Rosenstein. His off-stage death, which I think is victim to another cut, is at least made good use of in the chilling final scene where he joins Polonius and Ophelia along with Hamlet's father as ghostly spirits who look upon the subsequent slaughter from the four corners of the stage.
There is no fooling around either with the important questions and set pieces that form an important part of the play. Yorick's skull is in place; the delivery of Hamlet's soliloquy has no weird inflections or intonation, but is delivered directly. It's perhaps not quite the agonising crisis of existential contemplation you might expect from the grieving Hamlet, but played by Ruth Negga there is no question that his is a kind of "unmanly grief". There are no distracting gender questions raised here however, Negga playing a male Hamlet, her slight presence belying the intensity of feeling, but also accounting for the youth's doubt, hesitancy and uncertainty. The full power of the work's key scenes, the pacing and the intensity should culminate in a finale that should dispel any doubts about the method and leave you gasping for breath; and this one certainly does.
A Gate Theatre production
Dublin Theatre Festival
29 September 2018