When Ruth Negga was first announced for the role of Hamlet at the Gate for the Dublin Theatre Festival, there was an immediate buzz.
The Oscar-nominated actress has form with Shakespeare in Dublin, notably in the Gate director Selina Cartmell's production of Titus Andronicus 13 years ago.
But Hamlet is often played by leading women.
The French actress Sarah Bernhardt was a famous Hamlet and Fanny Furnival delighted Dublin audiences in the role as far back as the mid-18th century.
The pairing of Negga with award-winning South African director Yaël Farber marked this out as not-to-be-missed show. The result is a commanding and powerful production that will leave audiences deeply satisfied.
When Gertrude (Fiona Bell) first appears, wearing a powder blue cowl-necked suit at the coronation of her husband, she strikes a contemporary political note: Melania Trump wore a similar get-up at her husband's inauguration.
The point is gently made. This production is full of broad dramatic gestures but is equally strong on subtleties.
Farber's vision of William Shakespeare's Denmark is a place of rich visual contrasts.
Susan Hilferty's set and costume design are a triumph, with the Gate stage appearing more expansive than usual.
Paul Keogan's high-contrast lighting creates dramatic shafts and beams and picks out colours spectacularly.
Much use is made of the Gate auditorium: the ghost first appears in a side aisle, and the audience for the play within the play is seated at the centre divide.
Farber's direction generates a genuine broad playhouse excitement, but she also demonstrates immense and forensic attention to detail. The play has been judiciously edited: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been combined into one character, Rosenstern. Some of the archaisms have been dropped. The subplot involving Fortinbras is gone. The dramatic focus is pulled tight.
Negga is a princely Hamlet, full of gracious entitlement, capricious and deeply wounded. This is a gruelling performance; three-and-a-half hours, with Hamlet on stage most of the time, other than a brief respite in Act Four.
A beautifully staged swordfight, put together by fight director Donal O'Farrell, tops off the performance.
Negga combines vulnerability and ruthlessness, her tiny frame asserting its dominance of the action throughout by theatrical force of will. She brings a freshness to these oh-so-familiar speeches. The cross-gender casting has little dramatic significance.
Owen Roe as Claudius runs the complex gamut of that character's handling of his own guilty conscience. Nick Dunning's excellent Polonius is more of a schemer than a dodderer. Aoife Duffin's Ophelia is captivating.
This is a brilliant production of one of the best plays ever written.
Negga's performance is one to cherish, such fierce energy combined with utterly winning boyishness.
The 2018 Dublin Theatre Festival is off to a spectacular start.
Theatre & Arts
It's possibly not the easiest thing having an uber-famous sister. Christopher Ciccone (Madonna's brother), Austin Swift (Taylor's brother) or Jaxon Bieber (who had to deal with an embarrassing first name to boot) could all possibly relate to an experience Mark Huberman might also have had on occasion; that of witnessing an interviewer bide their time until he can get to the meat and drink of: what's she really like? I try so very hard not to bide my time during Mark's riff on homelessness - he's currently rehearsing a role of an Eastern European homeless man - his opinions on the lack of Irish actresses getting great roles (except for one woman, who we're getting to) or the perennial difficulty of waiting for callbacks from auditions, but throughout all of these, there is a nagging sense of an elephant in the room.
Theatre & Arts
Ahead of its launch next week with the eagerly anticipated Hamlet starring our very own Ruth Negga, Chris Wasser speaks to the team behind the Dublin Theatre Festival and discovers what to see and just what it takes to make the annual event a success