Monday 21 January 2019

Hamlet at Gate Theatre and Richard III at Town Hall Theatre, Galway reviews

  • Hamlet, Gate Theatre Dublin
  • Richard III, Town Hall Theatre Galway
Freshness: Ruth Negga with Owen Roe, who plays Claudius. Picture: Ros Kavanagh
Freshness: Ruth Negga with Owen Roe, who plays Claudius. Picture: Ros Kavanagh

A frightened prince, a monstrous king: Emer O'Kelly finds both superb.

Hamlet works at all levels, in all times. It is about the human condition; in "a time out of joint", humanity must attempt to find a connection. And when time itself is out of joint, the play rips us apart and leaves us naked upon the earth. We must watch where we walk is the message.

And this happens to us no matter how the young prince of Denmark is characterised: Shakespeare has made him a chameleon soul who belongs to the universe.

And in Yael Farber's new production for the Gate for the Dublin Theatre Festival, he is made terrifyingly, sombrely endearing. Ruth Negga is a tiny woman, but her abilities would make her capable of projecting any height. Yet she and Farber have chosen to make their Hamlet a frightened boy, isolated in his sense of irreversible loneliness and the betrayal of bereavement. That his father is murdered by his uncle is not enough: his mother has turned away not just from her duty and loyalty, but from her son.

The question is always asked: is Hamlet mad? In the form Negga gives him, he is undoubtedly so: mad with terror as he strives to build a carapace around himself and survive in the unlikely hope of making sense of the destruction of everything he has believed in.

It makes the overall interpretation of one of the greatest plays ever written almost unbearably moving, as terror builds upon loss, and love drifts away into the maelstrom of manipulation. Hamlet has never conceived of a world like this as it caves in around him as surely as the walls of the grave close on his beloved Ophelia.

"The rest is silence" is his dying gasp in Horatio's arms: this Hamlet's tragedy is that the ghostly voice of his father heralded its inevitability, fight to survive though he might in a world ruled by corruption.

It's a memorable production, ringing with authenticity from the marvellous gravitas of Owen Roe and Nick Dunning as the King and Polonius respectively, the icy impatience of Fiona Bell's Gertrude disintegrating into near madness herself, and Mark Huberman as a helplessly incompetent Horatio.

Aoife Duffin's devastating Ophelia is slightly marred by an accent which steps outside the vocal whole of the piece and seems to belong more to the farmyard than the court, but Gavin Drea makes an impetuously loyal Laertes.

The directorial concept includes moving the cast round the auditorium at key moments, heightening the sense of emotional immersion, and with Susan Hilferty's dignified panelled set transformed into cloudy landscapes as required with Paul Keogan's lighting, as well as Tom Lane's music and overall sound and Muirne Bloomer's movement direction, the Gate have reached a pinnacle of classicism combined with relevance.

*******

There are a lot more characters in the text of Shakespeare's Richard III than appear on stage in Druid's latest foray into the Bard's work. And despite a large cast by Irish standards, director Garry Hynes isn't quite so successful in representing the magnificence of court life and the blood-weltered horror of the battlefield as she was with the monumental Henriad of several years ago. But thanks to soaring performances and lustrous design, she has still done the master proud.

Shakespeare's last venture into the Wars of the Roses was an undoubted homage to his own queen, Elizabeth I, aka Gloriana. And since Henry VI, victor of the Battle of Bosworth and Nemesis of Richard III, was her grandfather, it was both graceful and probably politically expedient to portray Richard as a monster of high degree.

When the play opens, he has already had his eldest brother killed in battle, and has murdered his father, Henry VI. After introducing himself and his plan to wade through blood to gain the crown for himself, he marries his brother's widow, under the curse of his helpless mother the Duchess of York, and his grandmother Queen Margaret, who must stand by and watch. Next, he gets rid of another brother, the Duke of Clarence, by tricking the remaining brother, Edward IV, into having him murdered in the Tower.

Edward's sons, "the little princes in the Tower", still children, one of them the rightful heir, are next on Richard's list, to be followed by his own new wife to leave clear his path to marry Edward's surviving child, a daughter, thus securing the House of York's lineage for all time.

Add in pretty well everyone who dares to say him nay, including his own supporters who cheerfully commit murder on his behalf, and you can only say "nice chap". Shakespeare was taking liberties with history in order to curry current royal favour, but there's enough truth in it to make his morally and physically deformed Richard III one of the most famous stage villains of all time.

And in Aaron Monaghan, Hynes has found the theatrical embodiment: his performance, limping, ranting, paranoid and sly by turns, is a powerhouse of psychosis rather than innate evil, so we can never quite turn from him in total revulsion. And with the play's torrent of glorious speeches the other characters become verbal and moral foils as they howl to the heavens to find virtue and vengeance in face of Richard's implacable will to power. (A parable for our times indeed!)

Jane Brennan, dignified and resolute in her bereavement and fear, is a superb Queen Elizabeth, with Ingrid Craigie giving separate awareness of a soul in hell as Richard's desolate mother. On the male side, Rory Nolan makes the henchman Buckingham an almost bewildered ally in villainy as he is drawn deeper into Richard's toils only to pay a terrible price. But while Marty Rea does a splendid job as the unprincipled Catesby, the gimmick of casting him out of time with glasses and bowler as an obvious member of the Orange Order comes over as a bit clumsy, not to say prejudiced.

Garret Lombard turns in sterling work in several venal roles, and Marie Mullen is her recognisable stalwart self as the raving Queen Mother Margaret.

The production values for this production (at the Town Hall Galway, and coming to the Abbey stage on Wednesday) are quite superb, in Francis O'Connor's bleak iron set and lush costumes (with Doreen McKenna): nice to see the rarity of 16th century costumes in a Shakespeare play for a change); and eerie, spine-crawling lighting from James F Ingalls. David Bolger is the choreographer (a wonderful fight scene) and sound is by Gregory Clarke with music by Conor Linehan.

Sunday Independent

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