While it would be wrong to say there’s something rotten in the state of director Yaël Farber’s “Hamlet,” it would be fair to say there are one or two curiosities. Some, including costume and sound, fall squarely on Farber’s shoulders. Others, however, might have more to do with audience expectations. For there are more Hamlets in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by an audience. Even so, Farber’s Hamlet might not meet with anyone’s expectations. Partially the result of the extraordinarily brilliant Ruth Negga being cast in the lead role. Those who expected an overt gender, and possible racial re-examination of The Dane had best manage their expectations. As should those for whom this was not a consideration. Indeed, with Negga looking like a young, Hasidic Jewish boy in distress a lot of the time, a choice made more curious by Claudius’s Nazi styled uniform, you could be forgiven for feeling confused, despite the unsubtle political message. Yet whatever Hamlet this is not, the Hamlet it is is often spectacular. Due in no small measure to a superb ensemble, an astonishing light design, Farber’s compositional brilliance, and a hugely affecting performance by Negga.
Throughout, Farber unapologetically delivers an emotionally overwhelmed young Hamlet descending into grief and madness in classic style, superbly conveyed by Negga. If adhering to this through-line makes “Hamlet” all the more cohesive, editing the text to facilitate this proves a double edged sword. If tighter, neater, and faster, much, including the comedy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the arrival of Fortinbras, gets lost in the process. If what remains can be compelling, striving for clarity and directness, it can also become confusing, and confining, as a result of costume and sound.
While Susan Hilferty’s set design plays cleverly with doors, crafting a cramped, compressed, classical space, her costumes are a different matter entirely. Lacking coherence, or even complication, they simply confuse. Hamlet's father’s funeral, looking like Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses with black coats and black bowler hats, flips to modern militaristic weapons and uniforms, set against Hamlet’s and Claudius’s historical fascist references. Then there’s Ophelia, looking Pre-Raphaelite near the end, while Gertrude dresses like a contemporary politician’s wife and Hamlet later dons a hoodie. If it allows you to read whatever you politically want, it looks, and feels, untidy and unfocused.
While costumes seem to go any which way, Tom Lane’s obtrusive, pervasive, and invasive composition nails everything down too tightly, restricting and confining it all. It's not that Lane’s music is bad, it’s really quite good, often lending “Hamlet” a cinematic feel and flourishing when it accentuates transitions. But its near permanent presence establishes a monotone, depressive, self-serious mood that never deviates. Everything is informed by it, and often has to compete against it. Given the rich interpretive possibilities of Shakespeare’s words, and the calibre of actors delivering them, this all pervasive presence proves unwelcome. Like a Facebook algorithm, it limits and boxes you in, offering you restricted choice and robbing you of many rich possibilities.
If some things get lost in "Hamlet," what’s found is often stunning. Particularly Paul Keogan’s superlative lighting, which shows brilliance, finesse, and attention to detail. From a small torch on the barrel of a rifle, to shafts of German expressionism, Keogan illuminates Hilferty’s black and white landscape, with its occasional splashes of colour, with all the power and gothic grace of a classic Universal horror film. Against which Farber composes powerful and resonant images that fix in the mind's eye. All the while eliciting some memorable performances.
Performances across the board, including supporting roles by Will Irvine, Gerard Kelly, and Gerard Walsh as the gravediggers/players, and Shane O'Reilly as Barnado/priest, are top notch. As are Peter Gaynor’s Marcellus, Steve Hartland’s ghost, and Barry McKiernan’s duplicitous Rosenstern (a bewildering melding of Rosencrantz and Gulidenstern). Gavin Drea’s compelling Laertes and Fiona Bell’s conflicted Gertrude are both marvellous. As is Aoife Duffin’s astonishing Ophelia, a mirror of Hamlet’s pain, abandonment, and grief which lead to madness, which Duffin conveys in a masterful performance. An excellent Nick Dunning as the obsequious Polonius is a delight, giving Polonius scope and nuance, revealing layers of understated depth. A devious, power hungry Claudius, played to perfection by Owen Roe, offers the perfect foil to Negga’s stunning Hamlet. If, initially, Negga’s Hamlet seems trapped within tears and frustration, he soon becomes a walking wound. One that slowly festers and poisons, overwhelmed by what’s being thrust upon him in a striking performance.
“Hamlet’s” arrival at The Gate Theatre came with great expectations. If “Hamlet” doesn’t bring home the gender bending, innovative bacon some people hoped for, what it delivers instead is a sumptuous, classical feast. Never dull, never feeling long, if not all expectations are met, those which are exceed expectation. For Negga’s Hamlet is a towering success. You’d have to as mad as The Dane to miss it.
“Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, directed by Yaël Farber, runs at The Gate Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2018 until October 13, continuing at The Gate Theatre until October 27
For more information, visit The Gate Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival 2018