To cry or not to cry? That was the question I asked myself during the interval of Dublin Gate Theatre’s recent production of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet (To open this review with a ‘to be or not to be’ pun or not to open this review with a ‘to be or not to be’ pun? That was the question I asked myself as I started writing this review). Directed by South African director Yaël Farber, and part of the 61st Dublin Theatre Festival, the theme of which was “the Outsider,” the play starred Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress at the for her performance in 2016’s Loving, and recounted the haunting tale of a cursed kingdom and a young prince who must avenge the death of his murdered father.
Having an actress portray Hamlet might seem novel or subversive, but women have been playing the prince since the eighteenth century. The first recorded actress to take up the role was Fanny Furnival in the early 1740s, in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre (‘I hear that an actress played Hamlet for the four-hundred-and-eighth time last night in Dublin,” remarks one character in Joyce’s Ulysses). The Gate’s 2018 iteration does present considerations of gender; Hamlet being played by a woman does add interesting layers to his misogyny and to the idea of masculinity being a performance. It is also interesting when one thinks about how the women in Shakespeare’s performances were originally played by boys. Ultimately, however, the casting of Negga as Hamlet is not an explicit commentary on gender nor is it one of the play’s focuses. She was simply cast because she is stunningly good in the role of Elsinore’s genius, maddening, wonderful, tormented prince.
It is difficult to drag your eyes away from the mesmeric dancing of agony and crazed glee across her face, contradictory expressions flickering spasmodically as if she is a broken thing. Her Hamlet is so destroyed by his father’s death that there does not seem to be even a scrap of stability or sanity remaining– at one point, Negga bangs her own head with her fists manically. It looks like it hurts quite a bit. There is always something, a heaviness, pressing down on her character. Even when there are flashes of lightness, such as when Hamlet talks passionately about the theatre or when his friends surprise him with a visit to the court, Negga keeps a darkness glinting in her eyes, a discomfort somewhere around her shoulders. As with the play’s density of atmosphere, it never lets up. Even surrounded by other extremely fascinating characters, even hunched at the side of the stage, she demands the audience’s attention. This reviewer was in the leftmost seat in the front row, half a metre from Negga as she grimaced and glimmered her way through the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. It was an experience.
Aoife Duffin also stands out as Ophelia; the tragic heroine’s demise is somehow made more distressing by Duffin’s downplaying of the delicate aura or timidity that is often portrayed as central to Ophelia’s character. The infamously insipid and interchangeable Rosencrantz and Guildernstern have been merged to create the equally dull, docile Rosenstern, played by Barry McKiernan with a Nice Guy pococurantism. It is an interesting move that saves time by condensing two characters into one, but also a humourous way of pointing out just how useless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are as humans. Hamlet is an incredibly funny play — Shakespeare’s wit sparkles in Hamlet’s sardonic one-liners and the Bard’s signature of brilliantly clever wordplay — but I have never heard an audience more desperate to laugh. Their laughs were abrupt and cut short, coughed out, louder than necessary, trying in vain to alleviate, just for a moment, what felt like an unnaturally and uncomfortably long suspension of gloom.
Tom Lane’s soundtrack is composed of a discordant collection of sounds, overlaid here and there by mournful songs sung by the actors, or players, who visit the court, producing a disturbing counterpoint. The set design is minimal; in Shakespeare’s time, the stage was lit only by daylight, the inventive and evocative language more than making up for any lack of shouty visual elements. The colour palette of the Gate’s production is mainly monochromatic, the strong blacks and whites highlighting the play’s examination of binary conceptions of good and evil. There are two flares of red. The first appears at the very centre of the play, before the interval, when in the “play within the play” (which is as entertaining here as ever, as the stage becomes the stage on which a play in the play is performed, as Hamlet and co. take up seats in an aisle in the middle of the audience) with the glaring scarlet poison that killed the king and simultaneously infected the whole kingdom. The second is splashed alarmingly all over the stage with bright red curtains and bedsheets in a scene in which Hamlet berates his mother for marrying his uncle in what he sees as a most sickening and licentious betrayal of his father.
The glimmers of hope that Shakespeare inserted into the final scene are removed in this production with the omission of the arrival Young Fortinbras of Norway to take over Elsinore and restore it to its former glory. “Do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently,” Hamlet advises the visiting players, “for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance, that may give it smoothness… Be not too tame either.” This kind of balancing act of opposing temperaments and energies sounds very difficult to achieve— subtlety with sharp contrasts, tenderness alongside unbearable harshness, the parallelism of light and dark— but the Gate’s Hamlet succeeds in achieving it. At multiple points during the play, I thought about how I really didn’t want it to end, but after three enchanting hours it did. “The purpose of playing,” Hamlet continues in that same scene with the players, “is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.” After those three hours, after a standing ovation, after all the actors vanished, the audience was somewhat quiet. Then everyone went home, in awe of what they had just witnessed.