Wednesday 28 June 2017

If the play's the thing, this Hamlet doesn't cut it



THERE is nothing too badly wrong with Second Age's latest production of Hamlet (at The Helix in Dublin), but there's nothing very right about it either.

For that, director Aoife Spillane-Hinks seems to be to blame. For Hamlet to work there has to be a specific vision: this arguably greatest play of the English language incorporates far too many possibilities for a specific interpretation not to be decided upon. And Spillane-Hinks leaves it to wander all over the place.

Her Hamlet (Conor Madden) runs about athletically in a grubby T-shirt and trainers, but neither he nor his director seems to have thought through his motivation. Is he nuts? Is he pretending to be nuts? Is he pathetic? Is he a depraved rapist of either (or both) his mother or his loved Ophelia? There's no way of knowing, or even guessing.

Above all, he isn't the pivot of anything: the action falls away and comes back, but never seems to have anything to do with the politics at Elsinore. That sort of makes the arrival of Fortinbras and his Air Corps in the final scene a bit pointless. And Shakespeare, some people forget, was never pointless.

There are portrayals of driving authenticity: Jane Brennan and Frank McCusker make Gertrude and the King magnificently layered and credible. McCusker at prayer as he realises what he has brought upon his country is deeply moving, as is Brennan's dignified weeping for the girl she had hoped would become her daughter-in-law; while both are chillingly effective in their scene of political isolation as the entire house of cards begins to crumble beneath their feet.

The same cannot be said for Anna Sheils-McNamee's Ophelia, who looks like a supermarket checkout girl (costumes by Alyson Cummins) and drifts around the place woodenly "un-bovvered" by anything, which makes one wonder why she's gone loopy.

Darragh Kelly makes an effective Polonius (he also is excellent in the frequently unplayable part of the Gravedigger), with Aonghus Og McAnally an impetuous Laertes, but both suffer at the hands of the wandering direction -- like the other portrayals, theirs fail to connect in human terms. (On that note, Madden delivers the great soliloquies directly into the faces of the audience: "Introspection, me arse," one is tempted to say.)

Peter Daly unfortunately makes no impact whatever as what should be the nobly anxious Horatio, but the support cast of David Heap (Ghost and the Player King), Noelle Brown (Player Queen and the second gravedigger), and Mark Fitzgerald and Fergal Titley are all well up to the mark.

The inventive and effective set of a pair of two shadow-painted panels is also by Alyson Cummins, with somewhat uneven lighting by Sarah Jane Shiels.


Wexford Arts Centre and Mosshouse are both behind the new production of Billy Roche's Lay Me Down Softly at the Project in Dublin (and the Town Hall, Galway, in June).

The production is also directed by the author, which should give it at least as much authenticity and force as the original staging three years ago at the Peacock. That reeked of the Sixties, reeked of almost primeval violence, and reeked of the secret sadness of male machismo. But, sadly, they are all missing from the new production.

The play tells the story of a group of lost souls bonded together in their loneliness as they travel around Ireland in 1962 in a rundown carnival that has a "Come All" boxing bout at its heart. Theo owns the show and keeps it together with threats and the rough justice of the occasional crashing blow from a spanner.

He's supported by Peadar, older, and even sadder than he is, and together they take under their wing young Dean, who shows enough promise to replace Junior in the ring when the latter, an escapee from a boys' home, is so badly injured that his "fighting career" comes to an end.

Add in Theo's tough girlfriend Lily, who has settled unwillingly for his less than endearing charms; Emer, Theo's daughter from a long ago liaison, who has turned up rather in the manner of running away to join the circus; and a lot of off-stage violent mayhem and you have a fairly predictable outcome.

For the predictability to be acceptable in dramatic terms, you need force, and this production singularly lacks any. It plods along on a single level, and almost on a single vocal note, with the sentimental love story between Junior and Emer the only "happening". And even that is hampered by a total lack of chemistry between Dermot Murphy and Pagan McGrath, as well as the latter's monotonous and inaudible drone. (But she's not the only one with projection problems, although hers are by far the worst).

The counter-balancing fierce violence that brooded over Wilson Milam's Peacock production is completely missing this time around, leaving the play wallowing rather unfortunately in its essential sentimentality.

In addition, there is no sense of period in the design by Fionnuala McMullin and Francis White. Gary Lydon repeats his good performance as Theo, Michael O'Hagan is Peadar, Lesley McGuire is a reasonably convincing Lily, and Anthony Morris is Dean.

Sunday Independent

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