Review: Hamlet by Icarus Theatre Collective at Cork Opera House

Review: Hamlet by Icarus Theatre Collective at Cork Opera House – 6th Feb. 2017
Review by Edel Semple

Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet, on tour in Ireland and the UK at present, packages itself as “Shakespeare for the Game of Thrones generation”. In its set, costumes, and action, the production often nods to the popular HBO series, using the now familiar imagery to enliven and illuminate this iconic tragedy. Every character carried a sword, Gertrude and Claudius donned furs like trophies of a recent hunting party, and the pair sat in thrones decorated with a spear design that illustrated the interests of the “warlike state”. Denmark’s brutish culture, and Hamlet’s alienation from it, was demonstrated early on as, for the court’s entertainment, a brawny Laertes dispatched an opponent in a bloody knife fight. Huge Danish flags formed the backdrop for the stage and the unfussy set, with its pillars and tiered marble steps, provided plenty of scope for the cast to traverse from the battlements to the court to the graveyard. The play script was similarly economical; the performance time was a neat 2 hours 15min and the cuts were effective. For instance, the Fortinbras subplot was omitted entirely, as in many modern stage productions and Olivier and Zeffirelli’s films, and the production was all the better for it.


Laertes and his opponent, with Claudius and Gertrude in the background (Credit: Icarus Facebook)


The production had just a cast of nine but it seemed like much more as each actor played numerous roles and characters were rarely alone. On Elsinore’s battlements, for example, seven soldiers stood on guard to be met by Horatio. In their exchange, the soldiers responded like a chorus; they would answer Horatio’s question in unison, or one line would be shared by several speakers. In the opening scene, I found this an irritating distraction – it was, quite simply, clutter that got in the way of clear meaning and performance. Later in the play however, the chorus was used effectively and opened avenues for analysis. When Hamlet attacked Ophelia, the actor playing Gertrude said “get thee to a nunnery” before Hamlet repeated the line to Ophelia. This was perhaps a version of Gertrude in Hamlet’s mind, taking his side and advocating chastity and an all-female environment as women’s only route to safety.


Ophelia recites Hamlet’s letter, now held by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)


As Claudius prayed, the chorus sometimes spoke to and for him. When the soldiers informed Hamlet of the Ghost’s appearance, they stood around the stage; their voices acted like an eerie echo chamber and the effect was as disorienting as the supernatural encounter they described. This, however, brings me to a further criticism. Perhaps over-exposure to The Walking Dead and past Hamlets have influenced my expectations of the Ghost, but I feel short-changed when “Old Mole” in no way resembles a corpse (as in the Cumberbatch Hamlet) or a spectre (as in the Branagh and Tennant versions). As in other productions, Icarus’ Claudius doubled as Old Hamlet but when he appeared on stage, save for some smoke and the fear of the soldiers, there were no signs that Old Hamlet was in fact supposed to be a terror-inspiring spectre. Thus as Old Hamlet looked remarkably healthy for a dead man, his scenes were a little lacking.


Hamlet (far left), with Horatio (seated), a soldier and the Ghost  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)

Overall though, this was a solid production with several flashes of brilliance. Besides the neat cuts to the script and clear vision in the set and costuming, there were striking moments made memorable thanks to the performances of the cast. The tag-team of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were one of the production’s gems. Cast as a woman and man respectively, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern added some much needed levity to the seriousness of the Danish court. The pair appeared youthful, engaging in slapstick like tripping on the stairs and stealing Hamlet’s letter from Polonius and Ophelia to mock the sentiment. Their betrayal of Hamlet was not an act of malice or cunning, but of immaturity; naively impressed by the king and queen, they held to a misguided allegiance to the monarchy rather than their old friend. In his rejection of the pair (“though you fret me you cannot play upon me”), Hamlet assumed all of his princely authority to banish them from his sight.


Rosencrantz, Hamlet, and Guildenstern  (Credit: Icarus Facebook)


Although youthful, Hamlet was neither an effete intellectual nor a sulky teen. Unlike the erratic hyperactivity or inertia of other Danes, the performance by Icarus’ Hamlet was confident and measured. When Hamlet did display intense emotion then, the impact on the scene was palpable. In the closet scene, Hamlet was pitiful when the Ghost reprimanded him and plain distraught when Gertrude could “see nothing there”. During the Mousetrap, Hamlet jumped to his feet and squared up to Claudius, who visibly bristled with his hand on his sword; for a moment it looked as if vengeance would be had and an alternative ending was in store.


Gertrude and Hamlet in the closet scene (Credit: Icarus Twitter)


In the finale, Gertrude deliberately drank the poisoned wine; she determinedly defied her husband, protected her son, and chose her own (fatal) path. Following soon after, Claudius’ death was an arresting affair that visually recalled the death of Fassbender’s Macbeth; impaled by Hamlet’s sword, the king died kneeling with his back to the audience, his head forever in a penitential bow. Horatio’s performance was also particularly affecting. Cross-gendered casting was typical in the production – intriguingly Ophelia played the Gravedigger, a doubling I’ve not seen before – and Camille Marmié was compelling as Horatio. Surrounded by the bodies of the royals, nobles, and the courtiers murdered by Laertes and Hamlet in their frenzy, Horatio sat forlornly atop a mound of corpses. With the omission of Fortinbras, Horatio’s description of the “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” became a soliloquy where, like Hamlet before her, she toyed with the idea of suicide. Her life hung in the balance and, as the sole survivor of the orgy of violence, the audience were invested in her fate. After a tense moment, Horatio finally cast the poisoned chalice aside and the scene cut to black. Such was the strength of both performances, I could envision the actors playing Horatio and Hamlet exchange roles as Faustus and Mephistophilis did in the RSC Doctor Faustus (2016).

All in all, Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet is an invigorating and stylish production that captures the attention from the opening scene to Horatio’s last word.

Icarus Theatre Collective’s Hamlet concludes its tour of Ireland in the Siamsa Tíre Theatre, Tralee, Co. Kerry, on 13th-14th February 2017. More information on the touring schedule, cast etc. can be found on the Icarus Theatre Collective’s website here.

Theatre: “Hamlet” – Icarus Theatre touring Ireland

A company of seasoned classical actors embrace the brutality of the greatest play ever written. A gripping, ensemble style brings exhilaration and violence to the unforgettable music and delicacy of the words.

Blending traditional and physical theatre with a musical score, Icarus Theatre’s muscular production brings vividly to life some of literature’s most vibrant language and characters in a way you’ve never seen before: bold, exciting, and action-packed.

Touring the UK and Ireland in January  – February 2017, including theatres in Castleblayney, Derry, Newtonabbey, Coleraine, and Tralee, and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre Dublin and Cork Opera House.

Running time: 2hr 30min, including 15 min interval.

For more info and the detailed touring schedule, see the Icarus Theatre website.


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Review: RSC’s The Rape of Lucrece, performed by Camille O’Sullivan – Cork Opera House 7th June 2014

While Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece was popular when it was first published – some 420 years ago this year – the poem remains a relatively unknown work to most modern audiences. Bearing this in mind, I approached Camille O’Sullivan’s performance with more than a little curiosity – How exactly would O’Sullivan convey the language and energy of the poem? Could this narrative poem work as drama and, if so, how? How would this lengthy poem, written in rhyme royal, be received by an audience unfamiliar with the Ovidian tale and Shakespeare’s poetic style? It was a delight then to discover that through O’Sullivan’s skilful wielding of words, the carefully calibrated decisions to use song at key moments, and a vibrant musical score, the poem was invested with new life and so captivated a new audience.

Opening on a simple set, the eye was drawn to some key features. Feargal Murray played a black piano off to one side, golden light streamed through high arched windows, and stacks of papers were positioned around the stage like stools. Given the shift from day to night to day in the poem, and the mention of Tarquin’s flickering torch, the use of light and dark on stage was purposeful. O’Sullivan arrived on stage in a black, military-style cassock. Using the poem’s ‘Argument’, she began her performance as the narrator and set out the story for the audience. The key players of the piece – Lucrece and Tarquin – were indicated by O’Sullivan’s pointing to two pairs of shoes: Lucrece was represented by pale slippers, Tarquin by black army boots. A notable strength of O’Sullivan’s performance was its clarity; each character was distinctive and she moved with ease between the roles of narrator, Lucrece, Tarquin, and later Collatine, and Lucretius. Throughout, O’Sullivan succeeded in bringing out the drama in the poem and useful links with other Shakespearean characters were discernible; by turns, the portrayal of Lucrece and Tarquin called to mind characters as diverse as Lavinia, Cressida, Angelo, Macbeth, and Othello.

While O’Sullivan delivered a commanding performance throughout, she was most compelling when voicing the tortured Tarquin. Through spoken word, song, and movement, she articulated his desire, and later his shame and self-hatred, with passion and verve. In one of Tarquin’s song, she languidly repeated the lines “her azure veins, her coral lips, her alabaster skin, her snow-white dimpled chin” (l.419-420) so that the blazon became an eerie, haunting refrain. A further memorable moment came when, as Tarquin, she tiptoed to Lucrece’s chamber, almost had her (imagined) torch blown out, but finally “with his knee the door he opens wide” (l.359). It was a testament to O’Sullivan’s performance that, although we knew well the outcome of Tarquin’s nocturnal excursion, this was a tense and gripping moment where everything seemed to hang in the balance.

At the finale of the poem, the men of Lucrece’s family gather to speak to her but end up bearing witness to her suicide. As Lucrece’s grief-stricken father Lucretius, O’Sullivan addresses his daughter’s dead body (or rather, the spot where O’Sullivan, as Lucrece, had fallen at her death only moments before.) In the end, therefore, Lucrece and Tarquin are absent presences; they drive the action, they are spoken of, their actor stands on the stage (now embodying other characters), but they are nowhere to be seen. It is a testament to the power of Shakespeare’s language and this production’s fresh and energetic rendering of the tale, then, that Lucrece and Tarquin remain in our minds long after they have left the stage.

Adapted by Elizabeth Freestone, Feargal Murray, and Camille O’Sullivan. Music composed by Feargal Murray and Camille O’Sullivan. Directed by Elizabeth Freestone.

This review was kindly contributed by Dr. Edel Semple, University College Cork.