The Hamlet Session, Cyclone Repertory Theatre Group, Helix Theatre
Reviewed by Shauna O’Brien (Trinity College Dublin)
In The Hamlet Session, the Cyclone Repertory Theatre Group cleverly curates the core scenes of Hamlet into a workshop/performance aimed at students studying the play for their Leaving Certificate. Combining performance, audio-visual projection, and powerpoint display, the group’s three actor cast (Marcus Bale, Luke Barry, and Angela Newman) double, triple, and swap their roles with minimal costume changes and minimal scenic fuss. Rather than limiting the scope of their performance, however, this pared-down approach becomes an integral part of the production’s interrogation of Hamlet.
At one point Luke Barry is confronted with a dilemma when two of the characters he is performing (Hamlet and Polonius) appear opposite each other in the same scene. In order to reprise his Polonius, therefore, Barry temporarily (and reluctantly) cedes the role of Hamlet to the more mature Bale. This incites an argument between the two actors over Hamlet’s age, both invoking past precedents to strengthen their claim to the title role. This meta-theatrical tactic is employed successfully throughout the session, as mid-performance an actor will ‘hit pause’ to interrogate their character’s motives, or request help from their co-stars to tease out the meaning of a complicated phrase.
In this way, familiar exam topics such as Hamlet’s state of mind, death and mortality, action-versus-inaction are re-examined in a variety of creative and memorable routines. For instance, Newman’s Gertrude and Ophelia are ‘cross-examined’ by Bale and Barry to interrogate the portrayal of these two characters in the play. Towards the end of the performance audience members are invited to suggest different interpretations of Polonius and Hamlet’s characters for Barry and Newman to act out. Perhaps inevitably, with an audience of secondary school students, this exercise culminates in the absurd – in this case, Newman’s Hamlet gobbling like a turkey, and Barry’s Polonius channelling Conor McGregor.
At times these comic departures threaten to destabilise the overall tone of the group’s performance. Ophelia’s descent into madness prompts stifled laughter from several students. However, any fallout from these rapid shifts in tone are impressively minimised with the production’s use of lighting and sound. In the production’s climax, students are invited on stage to participate in an intentionally comic performance of the play’s final scene. When this scene runs on to Hamlet’s death, however, the lights drop, immediately concealing the student-actors from their classmates, and allowing the audience to focus on Barry’s performance of Hamlet’s final speech.
In spite of a temperamental audience, the three actors successfully engage students with their performance and discussion of Hamlet for nearly two hours. During a Q&A session with the actors, it was encouraging to hear students question the group’s approach to staging and performing the play. Perhaps this is the most successful aspect of the Cyclone Theatre Rep’s Hamlet Session – prompting students to reconsider the play as a malleable blueprint for performance, rather than an inert textbook to be ‘learned-off’ for their exams.