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Cross-gender casting choice looks inspired as Ruth Negga makes for a princely Hamlet



Freshness: Ruth Negga with Owen Roe, who plays Claudius. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

Freshness: Ruth Negga with Owen Roe, who plays Claudius. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

Freshness: Ruth Negga with Owen Roe, who plays Claudius. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

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.

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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.

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