Review: Hamlet at the dlr Mill Theatre Dundrum – October 2019

Review by Dr Ema Vyroubalová (TCD) of Hamlet, directed by Geoff O’Keeffe, dlr Mill Theatre Dundrum, October 2019.

Hamlet runs from 9-25th October 2019. Tickets available on the dlr Mill Theatre website.

With this lively fast-paced production performed in modern dress on a minimalist set, Hamlet comes back to Dundrum after a three-year hiatus. It is the seventh Shakespeare production to be staged at Mill Theatre in Dundrum Town Centre. Like all of the theatre’s earlier Shakespeare productions – Macbeth (2013), Othello (2014), King Lear (2015), Hamlet (2016), King Lear (2017), Romeo and Juliet (2018), Macbeth (2018) – it is put on by the in-house Mill Productions company and directed by their own Geoff O’Keefe as part of the theatre’s educational outreach programme.

If anyone comes to the play with the notion of Hamlet as a character who spends a lot of time standing around, mulling over his seemingly equally damning options while periodically delivering long poetic speeches, Kyle Hixon’s rendering of the role quickly dispels such stereotype. Hixon’s Hamlet brims over with nervous energy and he more often than not delivers his lines walking, pacing, running, jumping, fighting, crouching, or lying down. He joins the Player King and Queen in performing “The Murder of Gonzago” in Act 3 Scene 2. One scene later, when Hamlet has an ideal opportunity to kill Claudius but decides against it because the king is at his prayers and so may avoid eternal damnation, he hovers directly over the self-absorbed Claudius and makes it physically very obvious how close this Hamlet comes to going through with the murder. The manic energy with which he performs the notorious encounter with Gertrude (Caoilfhionn McDonnell) and the murder of Polonius (Malcolm Adams) in the Closet Scene (Act 3 Scene 4) suggests that this is a Hamlet who is being driven mad both by the events around him and by his own efforts to feign the “antic disposition”. His performance in the duel with Laertes (Felix Brown) is worth mentioning too as the two actors successfully pull off a technically demanding and largely naturalistic-looking fight.

Laoise Sweeney’s Ophelia presents a clear contrast to Hixon’s Hamlet, with her primarily inward-oriented grief and verbally rather than physically expressed descent into madness. While Hamlet in particular has often been played by experienced and so inevitably older actors, it is worth noting that the actors playing Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, and Horatio (Harry Butler), are all comparably young (early to mid-20s). Geoff O’Keefe’s choice to cast a genuinely young Hamlet gives the intergenerational conflict at the heart of the play a naturalistic expression, and hopefully also makes it easier for the young target audiences to relate to these characters.

Due to the company’s small size, the production included several instances of double and triple casting: Claudius/the Ghost, Bernardo/Guildenstern, Player King/Grave Digger/Sailor, and Player Queen/Grave Digger/Messenger. The doubling of Claudius with the Ghost naturally raises a host of questions about the nature of both kingship and kinship in the play and makes us wonder whether the two kings are ultimately that different. The doubling of the Gravediggers (as purveyors of a comedic interlude in the play) with the Player King and Queen (as presenters of a tragedic interlude) in turn raises questions about mixing and interchangeability of comedy and tragedy and ultimately about Hamlet‘s genre. Among the inevitable cuts, most notable is the  elimination of Fortinbras: given the length of the play and the need to cut it down quite substantially to make it presentable to school groups, this seems like a reasonable choice, especially since this production focused on the family drama aspect of the play rather than on the play’s larger political context.

Hamlet 2019 ensemble Mill-Productions dlr Dundrum

Ensemble – Hamlet by Mill Productions at the dlr Mill Theatre, Dundrum

Compared to the sets and costumes of Mill Productions’ previous Shakespeare adaptations, especially last year’s visually rich Macbeth, I found the costumes (Susan Devitt) and the set (Gerard Bourke) a little disappointing but conceptually still fairly interesting. The costumes were a relatively inconspicuous modern dress affair in a black/grey/red/orange colour scheme, evocative of a postindustrial drabness and the oppressiveness of the Denmark Hamlet has found himself in. Only the eclectic colourful outfits of the Player Queen and Player provided a welcome visual respite.

The otherwise minimalist and similarly drab set was anchored by a trio of prominent elements: a half-torn screen on the back wall, used to project footage of Old Hamlet’s face at points when he speaks to Hamlet, as well as the contents of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia read out by Polonius; two white plastic cantilever chairs used as thrones; and a set of spheres suspended above the stage at different heights and variously illuminated in order to appear in different colours at different points in the production. The screen (decorated along the edges by splashes of colour vaguely reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s art) underlined the importance of omnipresent surveillance to the play’s plot. Its association with Old Hamlet’s image raises the question whether Hamlet is just replaying memories of his father in his own head or whether what he is seeing (and hearing) is a genuine ghost of his father independent of Hamlet’s imagination. The legless plastic chairs seemed to be hinting that Claudius’s kingdom may not have the proverbial “leg to stand on”. Finally, the suspended spheres changed their colours along with the changing moods and events of the play and certain colours seemed to be associated with certain characters. The setup was evocative of heavenly bodies, serving as a reminder of the uncertain relationship between an individual fate and the universe as a whole. At the same time, a touch of drabness – the larger of the spheres appeared to be rubber exercise balls dabbed with splashes of paint – visually tied these heavenly bodies to the very much earthly rest of the set.

Although the production is aimed primarily at students reading the play for the English portion of the Leaving Certificate, the almost entirely adult audience at the evening performance I attended on the whole seemed to genuinely enjoy it. In fact, one thing I could not help noticing throughout was how many of my fellow spectators appeared genuinely gripped by the story and how some were even eager to see how the plot would play out. This observation probably indicates that the story of Hamlet has been becoming, at least in contemporary Ireland, a less prominent part of what might be termed ‘general knowledge’ than it would have been some years or decades ago. But it also suggests that directors and actors may not have to worry about audience expectations shaped by previous encounters with the play as much as their predecessors had done, which can have a certain liberating effect. Geoff O’Keefe’s production of Hamlet fits this trend: with its sparse modern aesthetic and focus on combining energetic physical acting with clear and naturalistic delivery of Shakespeare’s lines, it will definitely appeal to anyone watching Hamlet for the first time, as well as to students watching the play as part of preparation for exams. More experienced theatre-goers and Shakespeare fans can still find plenty of interest, such as the colourful symbolism of the interplay between the lighting and the set, or the wealth of interpretive possibilities in the production’s multiple doubling and tripling casting choices.

Review by Dr Ema Vyroubalová (TCD), with thanks to Mill Productions.

Hamlet runs from 9-25th October 2019. Tickets available on the dlr Mill Theatre website.

dlr Mill theatre Dundrum

 


 

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