Theatre: Marking the Bard's 400th anniversary
Emer O'Kelly sees a production of 'Hamlet' that is entirely credible, if a little lacking in fire
Peter Reid of AC Productions has played around a bit with Hamlet for his production at the New Theatre in Dublin. The play has been quite severely truncated, running at about two hours and a quarter. It opens, not with the ghost scene, but with Hamlet delivering his key-note speech, as it were, as he reflects on the political alternatives of abnegating his hereditary responsibilities to soul and State or taking them on ("Oh, that this too too solid flesh….")
But the play remains, on this four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, essentially the great author's work, probably because, as Reid points out in his programme note, as a director he's aware that playing with Hamlet is not a job to be taken lightly, and also that "clarity and vision have always been (my) main goals with Shakespeare's work, rather than imposing a director's vision."
And the result is entirely creditable, if a little lacking in fire.
The lack of fire is largely down to Rex Ryan's performance as Hamlet: an actor can choose to make the prince many things. Ryan has chosen to make him rather pathetic, even contemptible; he presents as immature and unlikeable rather than flawed, complex and fascinating.
Ryan has already shown that he is capable of very good work, but this is not his best role.
Thus the pivotal scene when he turns on Ophelia (Grace Fitzgerald) manages to fall flat due to a total lack of chemistry between them, making her breakdown bewildering rather than tragic, although Fitzgerald more than redeems herself in the mad scene when, her face painted gruesomely as a skull, she confronts the great court of Denmark with the piteous results of its own corruption.
As is usual with AC Productions, there is meticulous attention to minor details in both casting and staging to compensate for the small scale, and there are solemnly impressive performances from Paul Kealyn and Kathleen Warner Yeates as the King and Queen, terrifically impressive performances from Killian Coyle and Shane O'Regan as Horatio and Laertes, a quirkily sly Osric from Katie O'Kelly, and a pompously wily Polonius from Daniel Costello. Finbarr Doyle and Ethan Dillon complete the cast with the voice of Tom Hickey as the Ghost.
Cathy O'Carroll's lighting is atmospheric and inventive, and the fight co-ordination, both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's brutal attack on Hamlet, and the final duel between him and Laertes, are extremely well handled by co-ordinator Ciaran O'Grady.
The AC production of Hamlet is only the first Shakespeare production of the year for Ireland. Next month will see the Abbey stage Othello in a major production to mark the Bard's four hundredth anniversary.
It will be directed by Joe Dowling, who shows no sign of "slowing down" since his official retirement as Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
Dowling is as expert in period work as he is with the modern masters, and it will be interesting to see whether there will be echoes of Ireland's more immediate past in his vision for yet another of Shakespeare's flawed heroes.
It was, after all, Charles Haughey who made his official exit from Irish politics with breathtaking arrogance by impertinently employing the line "I have done the state some service; and they know't. No more of that…." Except, of course, that there was.
But with echoes still resounding from Druid's triumph last year in the four plays of the Henriad, the bar has been set very high for the Bard in Ireland.
We are unlikely to be overwhelmed with Will, however (as is already becoming a danger over the water) in the way in which our stages are currently being filled with various takes on the 1916 centenary, from the bizarre to the implausible, to the frankly misrepresentative.