Review: Hamnet at the Peacock/Abbey – Dublin Theatre Festival

Hamnet, as the play’s programme informs us, is just one letter away from greatness. It’s a predicament that haunts the play’s central character, Hamnet Shakespeare, who is based on the real-life son of William Shakespeare. In the play, Hamnet is close to great things – his father, literary fame, knowledge, life, death – but is tragically trapped on their margins. In one hour and with just two actors, Hamnet plucks its titular hero from the side-lines and makes him the centre of attention to tell his story.

From his opening lines as the eleven-year old Hamnet, Ollie West arrests the audience’s attention and never lets go. As a ghost and in asking the audience “Who’s there?”, before telling us “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers”, Hamnet recalls the opening of Hamlet and indicates that fourth-wall breaking will be par for the course. The audience will be both spectators to and participants in Hamnet’s working through of some big and very personal questions – What makes a man great? Why do we suffer? Why do we make art? Why would you choose “not to be”? Are some people born bad? When they’ve never really lived, why do children die? Does his father prefer him or Hamlet? Why did they see so little of one another? It is remarkable that in spite of the gravity of these questions and of Hamnet’s situation, the play is packed with comedy. For instance, Hamnet’s youth is highlighted as he energetically knocks out a Johnny Cash tune on his keyboard, gives a new friend tips on how best to play dead (the key is to stay still and not breathe – wannabe actors take note!), and stuck for answers he pulls out his phone to ask Google. As the play’s authors have crafted a fine balance between tragedy and comedy, West has plenty to work with and he ably shifts between the tones and the media (stage and film) of this production – no small feat for any actor, never mind a pre-teen boy.

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Hamnet sees himself on the video – Image credit: DeadCentre.org

Exploring the performative and critical history of Hamlet, David Bevington observes that the play “has now evolved into a cultural expression of what we as a society have become today” (Murder Most Foul, 2011: vii). Like its more famous ancestor then, Hamnet tackles not only existential questions, it seeks in part to express and examine the state of contemporary society (“to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” [Hamlet, 3.2]). Hamnet and his father Will are trotted out for our entertainment, but the play frequently forces the audience’s gaze back on itself. This is achieved both literally through the backdrop of a live video that shows the theatre and metaphorically as the play pokes at the suppurating wounds in modern life. Hamnet’s targets are near universal and many hit close to home; the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Donald Trump’s presidency, celebrity culture, the double-edge sword that is technology, and child-rearing practices (including the Work/Life balance which is an ideal but more often another source of guilt for the working parent), all fall within the bounds of the characters’ discussions.

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Hamnet faces the video screen – Image credit: DeadCentre.org

Throughout, Hamnet offers several opportunities to play “spot the reference”. Hamnet’s speeches are peppered with Shakespearean quotations and allusions and at other times the play lifts wholesale from the canon. Hamlet is the key source, but we also hear most of Constance’s “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” speech from King John; as Hamnet misses his sister there are echoes of the separated twins of Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors; Falstaff and Hal’s play acting in Henry IV Part 1 springs to mind when Hamnet plays at being Hamlet meeting Old Hamlet; and there are touches of Act 5 of Antony and Cleopatra when Hamnet worries whether in the future some actor will play him on stage, but botch the job.

The play is more than a tapestry of Shakespearean references though, and even as it draws on Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it is something fresh, original, and striking. In the days since I have seen Hamnet, I’ve thought about it again and again – it is a prismatic work, turning the play over in my mind I keep seeing new facets, questions, and ideas – and I’m only certain of one thing: I want to see it again.

Hamnet is a Dead Centre and Abbey Theatre co-production and is written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, with William Shakespeare. Cast and production details here.

Hamnet runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival until 7th October – tickets here –  before touring to Europe and Asia. There will be a Post-Show Discussion on Thursday 5th October, with members of the company.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Review: Lear by John Scott / Irish Modern Dance Theatre

Review: Lear, choreographed by John Scott and starring Valda Setterfield, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College Dublin (22 October)

Guest post by Katherine Hennessey, Visiting Fellow, Moore Institute, NUI Galway

I’ve overdosed on Shakespeare recently, I confess. As a research fellow with the Global Shakespeare programme at the University of Warwick and Queen Mary University of London, during a period that spanned two commemorative years (the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, and the quadricentenary of his death in 2016), I’ve binged. I’ve gorged. If plays, films, re-writings, adaptations, parodies, books, articles, blog postings, and the ‘Shakespeare vs. Dr. Seuss’ epic rap battle were grams of trans fat, then in early 2014 I was Cassius—and now I’m Falstaff. Or Nell.

It started innocently enough, with a production of Two Gents at the RSC in August 2014. For a few months afterwards I continued to function like a normal human being. But then things began to spiral out of control.

Sigh. It’s the age-old story: you watch a Romeo and Juliet or two, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, perhaps a Richard II. Gradually you come to learn that the Globe offers £5 groundling tickets… that the BBC archives Shakespeare films on Box of Broadcasts… that there’s a troupe out there doing a history play with an all-female cast, or a gender-reversed Taming of the Shrew, or that Ninagawa is producing Hamlet in Japanese at the Barbican. Before you know it you’ve seen seven Macbeths, six Othellos in four different languages, five different stagings—God help you—of Titus Andronicus. You just can’t help yourself. You see Shakespeare everywhere.

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You begin to cackle defiantly in the face of marathon productions. Spend an entire gloriously sunny Saturday cooped up in the Rose Theatre in Kingston binge-watching Trevor Nunn’s Wars of the Roses? Who wouldn’t?!? Six-plus hours of DruidShakespeare? Bring it, Garry Hynes. BRING. IT.

And then, every so often, you find yourself at a production that’s so balanced, so evocative, so crystalline in its clarity that it rises above the out-of-joint chaos, above the jumbled fragments of memory of the other Shakespeare performances that you’ve seen.

For me, the contemporary dance production of Lear by John Scott and Valda Setterfield, performed at Trinity College Dublin’s black box theatre, was the dramatic equivalent of a glass of ice-cold spring water on a sweltering summer day. (To see an interview with Scott and to see the dancers in action, click here.)

 

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Lear and daughters  (Credit: Patrick Moore)

Credit for this belongs in equal measure to the 82-year-old Setterfield’s grace, command, and fragility in the title role, to the hauntingly expressive ensemble work that Scott choreographed for her and her supporting cast, and—perhaps above all—to their radical re-invention of Shakespeare’s text and characters, and their jettisoning of almost all of his language in favor of their own, both verbal and kinetic. I’ve seen numerous productions of Lear over the past two years, but they’ve all been riffs on a core theme, to which this Lear provided an utterly refreshing contrast.

Setterfield plays the king as a male character, while his daughters are played by a trio of male dancers, Mufutau Yusuf, Ryan O’Neill, and Kevin Coquelard, as Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia respectively (the trio also play the Fool). Lear radically alters its source text, a fact which the set itself advertises from the outset, its back wall covered with sheets of white paper bearing fragments of Shakespeare’s lines: ‘kingdom,’ ‘a poor, bare, forked animal,’ ‘my wits begin to turn,’ ‘down from the waist they are centaurs’. Initial sequences of movement, in which the male dancers pace, then race, across the stage, repeating single but significant words from the text (like ‘Father’, ‘legacy’, ‘condition’, ‘scanted’) suggest a fierce sibling rivalry.

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(Credit: IMDT on Vimeo)

 

The first scene in which extended Shakespearean dialogue is spoken—beginning from Lear’s ‘Give me the map there,’ referring to what looks like a modern residential zoning plan hanging from the rear wall—continues only to Cordelia’s ‘So young, my lord, and true.’ At which point, Coquelard breaks character, or invents a new Cordelia, retorting in a mixture of English and his native French, ‘You want a translation? You are stupid. Silly, stupid Lear. I said already that I love you as is right fit. What more do you want from me?’ As the argument escalates, Coquelard speaks heatedly in franglais, expressing his intention to leave the situation (the argument with Lear? the production of Lear?) and return to his beloved France; he climbs up to a catwalk and storms out a side exit, singing an Edith Piaf tune and strutting in comic defiance.

The production provides abbreviated highlights from Shakespeare’s text, interspersed like the first with increasingly poignant dialogue in contemporary English. Perched on an armchair that doubles as a throne, Setterfield answers a series of telephone calls, of which we hear only her side of the conversation, in character as an elderly father pleading with his child to come visit. ‘It’s been so long since we’ve seen you. We all miss you. The dog misses you.’ The calls involve a series of increasingly urgent requests for help: the local pharmacist has mixed up the elderly mother’s prescriptions; the boiler has broken and water is pouring down the stairs, leaving the father unable to reach the mother’s medication.

These pleas are later cruelly mocked by Goneril and Regan, who grow increasingly resentful of the burden of responding to their elderly father’s requests. O’Neill at one point provides a litany of increasingly impatient conversations with his elderly parent: ‘Did you lose your glasses again? All the food in your refrigerator is past its expiration date. Are the stairs getting too much for you these days? Have you taken your medication? I’ve heard about a nice retirement home near here. You left the front door open again…’ And at one point his Regan and Yusuf’s Goneril dance menacing circles around a weeping, cowering Lear.

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(Credit: Patrick Moore)

 

Setterfield portrays a ruler whose frailty and advanced age are much more evident than his/her tendency, clearly delineated in Shakespeare’s text, to bully and domineer. This production finesses Lear’s obvious missteps and misjudgments by excising most instances of them, replacing them with the haunting one-sided telephone conversations, and with a contrite Regan’s agonizing communication of a doctor’s death-knell diagnosis: ‘He says you can never come home.’

Coquelard’s Cordelia eventually redeems herself for her earlier outburst by a series of tender gestures of care for Lear towards the conclusion. And like her sisters, she dances circles around her father, but rather in the joyful manner of a child shouting ‘Watch me, Daddy!’, basking in parental attention and affection, heedless of Lear’s increasing concern that she is running too fast and will fall (a reasonable fear, it seemed to me, given Coquelard’s incredibly swift pace around a floor strewn haphazardly with sheets of paper). Eventually she collapses, exhausted, and Setterfield’s Lear faces her beloved daughter’s death with a heartwrenchingly dignified resignation.

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(Credit: Patrick Moore)

Scott and Setterfield link their Lear to the tender spectacle of elderly parents, pining for a visit from their indifferent or otherwise-occupied children, tapping into the deep vein of compassion that animates Shakespeare’s play. One of the most moving aspects of Shakespeare’s Lear, after all, is that after suffering abject loss and despair and the chastisement of Mother Nature, he comes to empathise with the ‘poor naked wretches’ bereft of warmth and shelter in his kingdom, summing up his failings as a ruler with devastating understatement: ‘O, I have ta’en / Too little care of this.’ Scott’s and Setterfield’s portrayal of Lear elicits a deep compassion and concern for the aging, the frail, the lonely, for those whose minds are deteriorating, their memories fading. It prompts us to ask, ‘Have I taken sufficient care of this?’ And the emotional impact of the dancers’ movements and their words will remain with me long after the memories of many other Year of Shakespeare King Lears fade.

 

Guest post – Katherine Hennessey is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Moore Institute at NUI Galway. She co-convened, with Clair Wills and Fintan O’Toole, the Ireland and Shakespeare symposium at Princeton in March 2016 and is the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2017). From January 2017 she will be an assistant professor in the English department at the American University of Kuwait.

Review: RSC live King Lear

Review: RSC live King Lear – 14th October 2016

Guest post by Emer Murphy

As the centenary year marking William Shakespeare’s death nears its close, audiences around the world continue to delight in the wonders of his work. Despite the evolution of both time, and culture, his plots and characters demonstrate true resilience as they poignantly reflect the most basic of human instincts and injustices. But while the twenty first century moves into unchartered territory, there remains an almost striking familiarity. With millions of people displaced as a result of violent conflict and western politics catapulted into a state of chaos, history appears to be repeating. It is against such a backdrop that the RSC production of King Lear, directed by Gregory Doran, becomes all the more resonant for its audience, as the story of the great King’s fall offers lessons to even the most sophisticated of cultures.

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Lear and his daughters  (Image credit: RSC website)

With the stage awash with golds and browns, Lear’s downfall is instantly foreshadowed by the overt use of autumnal colours as he makes his magnificent entrance, wrapped in huge furs and hoisted aloof. He is instantly set apart from everyone else, elevated to a god-like position and encased in a glass box to highlight his utter detachment from his subjects (much like the political elite of today). Anthony Sher’s Lear speaks with controlled authority, almost complacency, as it becomes clear that he is significantly removed from reality. He has become too comfortable atop his throne, something Sher captures so perfectly with his body language, sinking into it with such effortless ease as it appears to be an extension of his being. Lear clearly occupies a realm of his own and is seemingly untouchable, until the moment he makes his most fatal mistake – the banishment of his beloved Cordelia – the catalyst for his fall.

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Sher as Lear  (Image credit: RSC website)

As Lear succumbs to his baser instincts, letting jealousy and egotism rule him, winter colours of grey and black come to prominence on stage and the set becomes more barren and bare. The leaves have withered and gone, just as Lear’s reign has rotted from its roots, leaving him to the mercy of those he scorned. While Sher’s performance displays an understanding of the wayward king, it lacks a little chaos and, to echo Susannah Clapp, it remains contained. He never loses control. He never truly gives into the flames of passion, despair and madness, and because of that the performance lacks a certain spark. Even at his lowest points – his isolation in the forest, his suffering through the storm, and the death of Cordelia – he remains somewhat detached from his emotions, bottling up his inner turmoil instead of releasing it. In short, the explosion never came. But for all that Sher was not, he nonetheless remains an intriguing Lear, spitting venom at his daughters, sitting in despairing silence with his Fool and muttering lovingly to Cordelia’s limp corpse. He captures the quiet, contemplative Lear with the ease of a skilled and experienced actor, and instils in the audience powerful human emotions that can only be triggered by the demise of a great character.

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Edgar as Poor Tom  (Image credit: RSC website)

The stand-out performance, however, goes to Paapa Essiedu for his stunning portrayal of the calculating Edmund. Essiedu brings a refreshing burst of villainy to the role with his mocking irony and humorous disdain, transforming Edmund instead into a most likeable villain. His tantrum-like foot stamping and immature jealousy make him a character the audience can relate to as he manipulates his way into his father’s favour. Strangely, but most satisfyingly, it is he who prompts the most laughter. Likewise, Oliver Johnstone excels as Edgar/Poor Tom. His agile, nimble movements allow him to move energetically around the stage in the image of a wild animal as Edgar slowly transitions to Poor Tom. His startled facial expressions and fleeting looks capture the peril of his situation as he appears more mad than Lear ever does. Covered in a layer of dirt and dust, wearing only a filth-stained loincloth, Poor Tom makes Lear, in his white undergarments, appear as though he is merely on a hike through the wilderness.

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Lear and Goneril  (Image credit: RSC website)

In a similar vein, Goneril’s progression from decent daughter to murderous villain is fluid and measured. She the product of Lear’s contempt, moulded from his cruel, hateful words as she refuses to be governed by his dictations. She does little to warrant or provoke such anger in her father and yet he rejects her so thoroughly, cursing her with infidelity in a scene that would make even the harshest of critics flinch. Her distress is palpable and resounds throughout the theatre as Lear’s treatment of her forces her to become cold and unforgiving in nature. Regan’s progression, by comparison, is not near as convincing. In the most vicious and violent of all Shakespearean scenes, Cornwall and Regan tear out Gloucester’s eyes, but here their actions seem too rushed and instead take from the horror of the scene. Regan maintains her distance from the action and is more of a spectator than an active participant in the violence. The glass box in which Gloucester is bound has echoes of Lear’s opening entrance, but this time the sentiment was very different. It comes to symbolise the utter destruction of his reign as, ultimately, it comes to be stained and spattered in the blood of his closest acquaintance.

Overall, the production captivates from the moment of Lear’s entrance to the moment he breathes his last, but somehow it fails to fully ignite.

Guest post by Emer Murphy. Emer has recently completed her studies on the MA Texts and Contexts: Medieval to Renaissance at University College Cork.

Review: “Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916” at Dublin Castle

Review by Edel Semple

The conjunction this year of the centenary of the Easter Rising and the quadricentenary of Shakespeare’s death have proved fertile ground for arts, culture, and scholarship across the island of Ireland and further afield. In the spring, for example, Ger Fitzgibbon’s talk in UCC and Andrew Murphy’s talk at the Pearse Museum provided fascinating insights into the place and uses of Shakespeare in Irish history and literature. In London, the all-Irish Taming of the Shrew has just completed its run at Shakespeare’s Globe; the production was set against the backdrop of the Rising, though this was mostly in evidence via Katherine’s embodiment of the fighting spirit and eloquence of her rebel foremothers. (The cause of the suffragettes hovered over the production too, and on this note, a follow up production of The Tamer Tamed, Fletcher’s proto-feminist “sequel” to Shakespeare’s comedy, would have worked superbly – but I digress.) Since July, Fortune’s Fool Productions has toured some of the country’s most beautiful historic sites – Athenry Castle in Galway, Castletown House in Kildare, and Dublin Castle – with its open-air production of Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916.

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Dublin Castle – Dubh Linn gardens and Norman tower in the background

The director’s notes remark that Measure for Measure has been designated a “problem play” but that this production approaches and presents the material as comic. Despite the weighty moral problems the play tackles and the production’s setting in a period of socio-political turmoil, this Measure was indeed light-hearted and humorous. Notably Angelo – a man so uptight and unfeeling he reportedly pisses ice – was rendered so comical that he lacked any menace whatsoever. His frustrated passion was cartoonish; while thinking of Isabella, Angelo was hilariously overcome by desire and had difficulty walking, and he repeatedly smacked a Bible off his head when the novice misunderstood his hints in 2.4. The buoyant energy of these scenes, Angelo’s silly antics, and Isabella’s relative calm, meant that the audience were in little doubt that somehow all would end well.

Aidan Moriarty as Angelo - Fortune's Fool

Aidan Moriarty as Angelo (Photo credit: Fortune’s Fool’s promo video)

Adding to the brisk pace and comic atmosphere was Elbow, played as an Irish Yosemite Sam wholly unable to keep up with the urban criminals. The poor officer was neither physically or mentally as quick as Pompey – his Bugs Bunny – and fruitlessly pursued him around the garden. Later, in a Laurel and Hardy moment, Pompey sat upon Elbow’s back and boldly conducted his business with Madam Lucia. When interviewed by Escalus, Pompey was engaged in some horseplay with Elbow and turning to find the officer’s crotch in his face, he was forced to agree with the lord that his occupation did indeed stink. The play’s dénouement was in keeping with the spirit of the production. The Duke was paternally benevolent and his proposal to Isabella was met with a shy but pleased smile, while Angelo and Mariana seemed satisfied with one another, and even Lucia looked content with her lot.

Johanna O'Brien as Isabella - Fortune's Fool 2016

Johanna O’Brien as Isabella (Photo credit: Fortune’s Fool promo video)

Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916 included some cross-gendered casting and gender swaps; the Provost was played by a woman while the gallant Lucio became Madam Lucia. This latter change worked well as Lucia, it was claimed, had borne a child thanks to Pompey; the reasons behind Lucia’s refusal to bail Pompey, her necessary independence, and her jaded view of the world became clear and this minor character became a real force in the production.

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A gentleman (left), prostitute (centre) and Madam Lucia (right) in the Monto

The play’s action was relocated to Dublin and references to Irish places, culture, and history were commonplace. For example, Mariana sang the folk song “I Know My Love”, Barnadine was now “Belfast-born”, and Countess Markievicz was an inspiration for the Provost’s costume and some of the character’s interests (see the programme for details). There was an ownership and consideration of our past at work here, as the production acknowledged Ireland’s complicated history with Britain, with the Church, and with its own citizens. The thousands of women who were condemned to the Magdalene Laundries, operated by the Catholic Church, were embodied by a lone pregnant mother who scrubbed a shirt under the watchful, unforgiving eye of a nun. Mistress Overdone and her women hailed from Monto, a section in the north inner city infamous in the early twentieth century as a red-light district that drew much of its business from the nearby British army barracks. Measure focuses on the Duke and the dilemmas of a well-to-do sister and brother, but this production drew attention to the lives of other, ordinary citizens. When the Duke, Angelo, Isabella, and Claudio took centre stage, the fortunes of the working class poor were pointedly played out on the margins of the space; a poor country girl sought help at the castle door (it remained shut), prostitutes advertised their wares to the audience on the streets (garden paths), while civil and church servants went about their business in the prison and government offices (walled areas). All of this worked well but the shift from Vienna to Dublin meant that some early modern terms, such as “bawd” and “punk”, stood out; changing the odd word to Irish slang would have strengthened the clarity and humour of some lines.

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Dubh Linn Gardens and the Coach House – Dublin Castle

Performed in the Dubh Linn Gardens, in Dublin Castle, Measure took advantage of the garden space, which had surprisingly good acoustics, and the twenty or so actors made full use of their green stage. (Seriously, a tip of the hat to Fortune’s Fool’s cast and crew as it took some energy to master and traverse the wide space and project words and emotion for two hours in the damp air and to compete on occasion with the rowdy seagulls.) The audience always had something to look at and turn to as characters entered from and exited to different locations; the space in front of the Coach House was used as Angelo’s office, the prison was a walled area, the lawns and paths were the city streets, and so on. Overall, this production was a pacey and fun rendition of Measure – it was worth braving the Irish summer weather for and it makes a fine contribution to the commemorations of 1916 and Shakespeare 400.

 

Measure for Measure – Ireland 1916 runs in Dublin Castle until Sunday 14th August 2016. The production is part of the British Council’s “Shakespeare Lives” programme. The show is approximately two hours long and there is no interval. The production’s programme is available here. Social media: #ShakespeareLives and #M4M-Ire1916

For more on Shakespeare 400 in Ireland see earlier posts and on Twitter: #ShaxIrl400 #Shakespeare400 #ShakespeareLives

Report: ‘Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen’ – exhibition and Q&A

Guest post by Cynthia Martin.

As part of the Shakespeare 400 celebrations in Belfast, the Queen’s Film Theatre is honouring Sir Kenneth Branagh’s work with an exhibition which chronicles his prolific career as both Shakespearean actor and director.  The display features an array of movie stills, photographs, movie posters, promotional postcards, and theatre programmes from Branagh’s early beginnings to today (complements of the Branagh Collection, located in the Special Collections & Archives of Queen’s University Belfast). An eclectic collage of rare artefacts, this exhibition will tour the island, as Ireland celebrates Branagh’s contribution to Shakespeare appreciation.

The exhibition begins with a large triptych, designed to detail Branagh’s very distinctive and rich work in Shakespeare adaptation throughout the past three decades. Informative yet concise, this poster presents visitors with an organised contextualization of the coming attractions for optimal experience and engagement.

Branagh Hamlet

Branagh’s Hamlet (1996)

The production stills of Branagh’s Hamlet and Henry V (as well as a black-and-white offstage photograph from the set of Much Ado About Nothing) especially capture the careful thought and conscientiousness behind every scene Branagh has directed. As film is a medium which perpetually moves forward, a production still offers a visual pause to the viewer, affording her/him the opportunity to reflect on all the intricate details of a split second in the performance. The still of Branagh as he is about to begin Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy especially conjures the dichotomous emotional conflict between meditative deliberation and fierce urgency.

Also included in this exhibition are theatre programmes from Branagh’s earlier career with the Royal Shakespeare Company (Henry V by the RSC at Barbican Theatre in 1984 and Hamlet by the RSC at Stratford in 1993). A framed theatre poster from Branagh’s performance as Richard III in 2002 additionally joins the wall amongst production stills and film posters. Aiming to focus also on Branagh’s theatre legacy, these artefacts inspire viewers to contemplate the media translation of Shakespeare from page to stage to screen, and to admire Branagh’s seemingly effortless flexibility between film and theatre productions.

Branagh Much Ado

Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

However, it is perhaps his presence on Time’s front page in 1989 which best demonstrates the extent to which Branagh has contributed to the integration of Shakespeare into modern cinematic culture. Often praised for the accessibility of his Shakespeare productions to audiences, Branagh juggles both high and pop art cultures with impressive dexterity. As Branagh was nominated for two Oscars for his Henry V (Best Actor and Best Director), this magazine cover brings the viewer back to the time when this Belfastite first achieved global stardom.

The launch of the Branagh exhibition on the 7th of May of this year in conjunction with the Irish Renaissance Seminar held at Queen’s University, Belfast, included a lovely reception with wine and hors d’oeuvres. A gracious introduction by Professor Mark Thornton Burnett of Queen’s University, Belfast truly highlighted Branagh’s phenomenal contribution to Shakespeare film, theatre, and adaptation studies. I would recommend this exhibition to anyone with a deep interest in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and am pleased to inform fans that these artefacts will be accessible to various regions across Ireland this year.

In conjunction with this exhibition, the QFT also arranged a Q&A session with Sir Kenneth Branagh himself for the 27th of May. Led by Adrian Wooton, CEO of Film London and the British Film Commission, this event served as a special introduction to a showing of Branagh’s 1989 Henry V, an introduction which was also transmitted live to over 70 cinemas across the UK.

Wooton mainly covered Branagh’s impressive and action-packed career, from Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006), to very recent, non-Shakespearean work, such as Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015). Given that Branagh had mentioned that his interest in Shakespeare began with a passion for his native Irish language, it was a shame that Wooton did not include Branagh’s The Magical Flute (2006) in this discussion, as the obvious connections amongst poetic language, Shakespeare, and music would have naturally led to an engaging dialogue on the profound, yet simple magic of sound.

Branagh As-you-like-it - finale

Branagh’s As You Like It (2006) – finale scene

Although Wooton’s questions themselves were quite predictable and unoriginal (indeed, one got the sense that Branagh had answered these same questions a million times before), one could not object to the sheer delight of simply being in Branagh’s charming and enchanting presence. Moreover, a pre-selected batch of Twitter questions from fans definitely added a more personal and unique element to the discussion. One Twitter user who had a particularly keen sense of humour asked if, from a director’s perspective, Branagh found himself difficult to direct, to which the audience and Branagh responded with authentic, unbridled chuckles. Overall, Branagh’s personal introduction to his Henry V, the film which catapulted his career as Shakespearean actor and director in his home-town, contributed the perfect piece to the Shakespeare 400 celebrations.

Guest post: Cynthia May Martin is a PhD student in English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast.

 

The “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh on Stage and Screen” exhibition will tour to the following venues and more locations will be announced in due course:

Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast: 26 April-31 May

  • Irish Film Institute, Dublin: 02-30 June
  • LexIcon Dun Laoghaire: 1 July – 13 August
  • NUI Galway: 15-26 August
  • Linen Hall Library, Belfast: 03-15 October
  • NUI Maynooth: 17-25 October
  • Royal Irish Academy, Dublin: 26 October-02 December

For further details, see the British Council webpage on “Shakespeare Lives Through Sir Kenneth Branagh”.

Several of Branagh’s Shakespeare films will be screened at the IFI, Dublin, this June – see the “Shakespeare Lives on Film” tour.

For information on the British Council’s “Shakespeare Lives Across the Island of Ireland: Conversations and Celebrations” programme see the British Council – Ireland ‘Shakespeare Lives’ webpage.

 

 

Review essay: Othello at the Abbey and Shakespeare in Ireland

Review essay by Edel Semple

Othello at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (Dir. Joe Dowling) – May 2016

Cast and production details: http://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/othello

 

At the UCD / Abbey Shakespeare talk in the Pearse Museum, actor Owen Roe discussed with the audience a concern that sometimes rears its head when Irish theatres tackle the works of the world’s most famous author. In the rehearsal room, Roe told us, Irish actors and directors express an anxiety about ‘doing Shakespeare’, and sometimes even theatre reviewers voice a scepticism about the effective staging of Shakespeare in Ireland, with Irish creative producers for Irish audiences. Some of the anxiety stems from a worry that English actors have an innate understanding of Shakespeare (this anxiety isn’t unique to the Irish; American actors also experience it, as noted in Al Pacino’s Shakespeare documentary Looking for Richard.) Familiarity and saturation are also issues; Shakespeare is England’s greatest literary export and, with the popularity of Shakespeare productions by the BBC, RSC, and the Globe Theatre, and the prominence of great British Shakespearean actors like Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, we are accustomed to hearing his works performed in RP or in some variety of an ‘English accent’. As demonstrated by Roe’s compelling reading of Shakespearean excerpts in different Irish accents, we can easily overcome this last obstacle – once you tune in, listening to Shakespeare in an Irish accent sounds as good, and as natural, as hearing The Playboy of the Western World performed in a Mayo accent. Moreover, the endurance of Irish interest in Shakespeare and the long tradition of Shakespearean production in Ireland should put any other fears to bed.

As recent public lectures by Prof. Andy Murphy and Prof. Emeritus Ger Fitzgibbon have shown, Shakespeare is woven into the political foundations and literary fabric of our nation. Many of the 1916 rebels, such as Padraig Pearse, were Shakespeare enthusiasts, and authors such as Sean O’Casey, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, and Oscar Wilde, to name but a few, were influenced by and wrote about Shakespeare. Ireland has produced several eminent Shakespearean scholars too; Edmond Malone, born in 1741 in Dublin, is still renowned as an editor of Shakespeare, while the celebrated Victorian critic, Edward Dowden, was born in Cork in 1843 and began his education at Queen’s College Cork (now UCC). When Israel Gollancz assembled A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, a limited edition collection to celebrate the tercentenary in 1916, there were two Irish contributions; a poem in Irish from Douglas Hyde entitled ‘How it fared with a Gael at Stratford-on-Avon’ and a short essay on ‘Shakespeare and Ireland’ from D. H. Madden, a former MP and current Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.

A Book of Homage - Gollancz - 1916

Gollancz’s A Book of Homage to Shakespeare

There is also a long tradition of Irish actors performing Shakespeare to great acclaim. To cherry pick just two stage actors from across the centuries: In the eighteenth century, the Donegal-born actor Charles Macklin was renowned for his performance of Iago, Malvolio, and Macbeth, and his 1741 portrayal of Shylock as a tragic figure was celebrated as ground-breaking. Macklin often collaborated with the renowned theatrical impresario and actor David Garrick, and the duo had a lasting influence on the development of acting styles and theatre in the period. Born in Limerick in 1857, actress Ada Rehan was celebrated in the US and Europe for her performance of roles such as Viola, Rosalind, and Katherina. (Such was her fame that a World War II ship was named in her honour.)

Charles_Macklin_by_John_Opie and Ada Rehan as Viola - Folger Digital Images Collection.jpg

Ada Rehan as Viola (Folger Shakespeare Library) and Charles Macklin

More recently, Cork’s Camille O’Sullivan has toured the globe with the RSC in an award-winning one-woman show of The Rape of Lucrece, and in 2015 DruidShakespeare toured Ireland, visited New York, and RTÉ screened a documentary on their production of the history tetralogy. Notably, the current production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has an Irish director and all-Irish cast. The play’s action has also been transported from Padua to Ireland in Easter 1916 (and quite effectively, if early reports are anything to go by.) Shakespeare has even been successfully reworked to form new plays; Siren Productions staged A Tender Thing (which saw Romeo and Juliet as elderly lovers) in 2014 and PanPan’s Everyone Is King Lear In His Own Home played at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2012. On the small and big screen, Shakespeare has been performed by actors such as Micheál Mac Liammóir, Cyril Cusack, Fiona Shaw, and, most recently, Michael Fassbender and Jack Reynor. (Mac Liammóir even wrote of his experiences of playing Iago in Welles’ 1952 film in the memoir Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Orson Welles’ Othello.) At this moment, the British Council and Queen’s University Belfast are celebrating Shakespeare 400 with a touring exhibition on the work of Belfast-born actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh, whose films include Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet.

MacLiammoir - Put Money - and Branagh British Council exhibit.jpg

Mac Liammoir’s memoir and the British Council / QUB ‘Shakespeare Lives through Kenneth Branagh’ exhibition (Photo credit: British Council)

On Irish stages, Shakespeare has been performed since at least the seventeenth century. Taking Othello as an example; there are records of a performance of Othello in 1662 in Smock Alley, and over 400 productions of the tragedy were staged in Dublin between 1662 and 1904. (For details, see the ‘Shakespearean Performance in Dublin 1660 to 1904’ project.) Othello has been performed by amateur groups too, such as the Cork Shakespearean Company (founded in 1924), and by university drama societies, and the play is a staple in the education sector; Cyclone Rep’s ‘Shakespeare Sessions’ has brought the play to secondary school audiences, while Fíbín, an Irish-language theatre company, staged the play for Leaving Cert students in 2014.

Smock Alley Theatre Dublin - since 1662

Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin

With such a long and illustrious history of Irish interest in and performance of Shakespeare, and with a tapestry of connections linking Shakespeare with Irish politics, education, and art, the Abbey’s Othello makes for a fine contribution to our island’s theatrical tradition. Directed by Joe Dowling, this production is a confident and polished iteration of the four hundred year old tragedy. At the play’s opening, an enormous disc bearing an image of St. Mark’s lion was suspended over the stage and this set the action firmly in Venice. To quibble here on the set design: in comparison to the Italian city, the setting of Cyprus was only hinted at through lighting, with the backdrop becoming a washed-out dawn or a red sunset as the scene required. With such a spartan stage, an object more solid or an image more defining of the Cypriot island would have been welcome. Having experimented with an apron for their 2013 Lear, the stage has also received a makeover for Othello. Transformed into a thrust stage, the Abbey’s playing space now has the audience seated on three sides; this proved to be a successful and fitting arrangement that highlighted the oppressive atmosphere of the play. Thus, up close and personal when Iago divulged his plans, when Othello collapsed in a fit, and when Desdemona died on her marriage bed, we sat as judges and voyeurs of Shakespeare’s most domestic tragedy.

Abbey - Venetian senate - 2016

The Venetian Senate (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Packed with suited politicians and a benevolent-but-inept Duke, the Venetian senate was reminiscent of the Dáil (cue a chuckle as the senators blustered about in ignorance and squabbled childishly.) Everyone, from statesmen to soldier, was accepting of Desdemona and Othello’s inter-racial marriage and pleased at the couple’s displays of love, except Brabantio (whose puce-faced racist interjections made the PC politicians wince) and the comical sap Roderigo. Roderigo was dressed and acted like an extra from West Side Story (I expected him to snap his fingers and break into ‘When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet’ at any moment). So pathetic was Roderigo’s love-sickness and so easily was he manipulated by the savvy Iago that he often added a desirable levity to break the building tension. Iago’s power over the gullible youth was so strong that it seemed he could persuade him towards anything. For instance, illustrating how Cassio and Desdemona’s “breaths embraced together”, Iago pulled Roderigo close enough to kiss him. This prospect dangled tantalisingly before Roderigo’s starstruck eyes, before the homoeroticism was quashed with Iago’s smug pronouncement: “Villainous thoughts, Roderigo!”

Abbey - Iago and Roderigo - 2016

Marty Rea as Iago and Gavin Fullam as Roderigo (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Marty Rea’s Iago made the stage machiavel a familiar, but terrifyingly capable, ‘cute hoor’. Played as Northern Irish, Iago was quick off the mark and his accent underlined the sarcasm in his comments (“Cassio’s a proper man”.) To kickstart the night-time brawl that would see Cassio lose his office, Iago wheeled in a drinks cart and, while soliloquising at the end of the scene, he snatched up a sandwich and a glass of wine. This neat action marked Iago as a skilled (he multi-tasked by plotting while eating) and self-serving schemer, casual in his villainy. Later, ever-practical, Iago pocketed the coins Othello had strewn at his wife’s feet. However, Iago’s lowly position in the army’s pecking order was illustrated when his superiors lost control. Cassio was a heartbreakingly genuine gentleman (his speech on his lost reputation was moving) and his affection for Desdemona was clear, but he made for a nasty drunk. Grabbing Iago around the neck, the inebriated Cassio announced “this is my ensign” with the same sense of ownership and command as when he proclaimed “this is my right hand, and this is my left”. In affairs of the mind though, Iago always had the upper hand. When Iago suggested that Othello strangle Desdemona in “the bed she hath contaminated”, he lurked at the general’s shoulder like a devil whispering in his ear. Unlike Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Othello had no ‘better angel’ to lure him from evil and he was pitifully alone as his ensign generated an unbalanced pyschomachia.

Abbey - Iago exulting 2016

Marty Rea as Iago (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

Peter Macon’s deep-voiced Othello bore the hint of a North African accent and, attired in his dress uniform, he cut an imposing figure as he fought his case before the Venetian senate. The scars on his head marked him out as an experienced soldier, though his love for Desdemona rendered him as gentle as a kitten. So happy were Othello and Desdemona, so pleased were they with one another, each time they cuddled like teenagers the characters onstage and the audience broke into a grin. However, while the play bears his name, Othello seemed to be increasingly side-lined as Iago’s fantasy took hold of his mind; gone was the great general, he was instead a twitching shell of a man no longer in control of his own life or even his own body. Othellos are often overshadowed by their Iagos, and that is perhaps a deliberate move on Shakespeare’s part; we see Iago’s machinations, as we do Richard III’s and Edmund’s, but we remain fascinated by such audacious malevolence, lured in as much as Othello.

Abbey - Othello in formal uniform 2016

Peter Macon as Othello in Venice (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

The play’s female triad were all Dubliners. Desdemona’s Southside accent, beautiful gowns, and playful teasing of Othello marked her as a kind of grown-up D4 debutante. Emilia was well-dressed and appeared like a middle-aged nanny, a companion rather than a maid. The power dynamic of her marriage was nicely established as, upon receiving a warm-welcome from Cassio, Emilia nervously looked at Iago, who was already watching her with a threatening expression. Emilia seemed fully aware of her husband’s flaws, but she was at the mercy of her sexual desire; rewarded with a deep kiss for surrendering the infamous handkerchief, she stumbled off stage in a daze of passion. While she prepared Desdemona for bed, the two women shared a beautiful moment of affection, making their imminent deaths all the more poignant. Seated on a bench on the sparse stage, the duo managed to create a perfect feeling of intimacy and friendship as they pondered their love lives and fates. The support and companionship exhibited by these upper class ladies provided a sharp contrast to the treatment of Bianca, who enjoyed no such solidarity or kindness from the Venetians. Liz Fitzgibbon’s Bianca had a loud voice and Northside accent, and she sported a boho dress and brazen attitude that marked her as indelibly different to the upper class Venetians. This Bianca was impossible to ignore, much to Cassio’s disappointment and to the audience’s amusement, and, I think, she will be hard to forget. The play did not conclusively come down on either side of the debate about Bianca’s identity; listed as a ‘courtesan’ in the dramatis personae only in the 1623 Folio printing of the play, in the Abbey production Iago labelled her a “hoor” (whore), but she acted more like a loyal if indiscreet mistress, and in 5.1 denied the appellation.

Abbey - Bianca and Cassio - 2016

Liz Fitzgibbon as Bianca and Barry John O’Connor as Cassio (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

To quibble once again on a matter of materiality and the limitations of the Abbey stage; for the play’s final scene, the arrival of a sleeping Desdemona in her bed was simply awkward. Although an effort was made to blend this piece of stage business in with the rest – the bed was carried on by actors in uniform – it was an inelegant move, out of place with the otherwise seamless action. Othello’s murder of his wife was uncomfortable viewing not only because of the innocence of the victim and the gullibility of her executioner, but due to our proximity to the sordid deed. In the aftermath of Desdemona’s death, Iago ran to exit but returned to stab Emilia; the fatal blow was delivered like the vengeful afterthought of a bold schoolboy. However, this action, like Othello’s suicide, was curiously clean and bloodless; presumably the practicalities of costuming and props over-ruled the play’s need for a “bloody” conclusion. A striking tableau closed out the tragedy; Othello lay dead by his wife, Emilia nearby, and Iago kneeled in tears (of remorse? relief? self-pity?), while the shocked and defeated Venetians could only look on and offer trite appraisals of the “heavy act[s]”.

Abbey - Desdemona in bed - 2016

Rebecca O’Mara as Desdemon (Photo credit: Abbey Theatre Facebook)

While the Abbey has staged one Shakespeare play annually in recent years, this was its first ever Othello and the production bodes well for the future of this tragedy and other Shakespearean dramas at our national theatre. Whatever anxieties we may have about ‘doing Shakespeare’ in Ireland, as the history outlined above shows and as the Abbey’s Othello and the myriad of productions, exhibitions, public lectures, and conferences around the country this year demonstrate, he is being ‘done’ and done well – here’s to the next four hundred years.

For more on Shakespeare 400 in Ireland see earlier posts and on Twitter: #ShaxIrl400 #Shakespeare400 #ShakespeareLives

Othello runs at the Abbey until 11th June 2016.

Related events of interest:

‘Talking Text Workshop’ on Othello at the Abbey on Saturday 28th May.

UCD / Abbey Shakespeare lecture by Dr. Farah Karim-Cooper (Head of Higher Education and Research, Shakespeare’s Globe) on ‘Gesture on the Shakespearean Stage’, accompanied by actor Marty Rea (currently playing Iago) on Friday 27th May, 4pm on the Abbey stage.