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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Theatre: Hamnet, Abbey Theatre

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Hamnet

An Abbey Theatre and Dead Centre Co-production

From the Abbey website:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child
King John, Act III scene IV

William Shakespeare had one son. He named him Hamnet. He then left home to pursue his career in the theatre, effectively abandoning his family. In 1596, he was told that the boy – who was then eleven years old – was seriously ill. By the time Shakespeare reached Stratford, Hamnet had died.

In 1599, Shakespeare wrote a play called Hamlet.

Hamnet is too young to understand Shakespeare. And he is one letter away from being a great man. We are too old to understand Hamnet. How close are we to greatness? We meet in the middle, in a theatre, in purgatory: youth reaching forward to a life it will never know, an audience reaching back to a life it has forgotten.

A solo work for an eleven year old boy, Hamnet uses live video and dead video to bridge the gap between two generations, asking each other what they want to pass on and receive.

BOOKING INFORMATION FOR HAMNET

Dates: 26 September – 7 October
Previews: 26 & 27 September
On the Peacock stage

Times: Mon – Sat 8pm, Matinees Sat 2.30pm
Tickets: €18 – €25 / Conc. €16 – €20

To book for a group of 6+ call (01) 87 97 266

More information: https://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats_on/event/hamnet/

Irish Renaissance Seminar at UCD – “Conflict and Contestation in the Early Modern World “

The first meeting of the Irish Renaissance Seminar for 2017 will be held on Saturday 22nd April in the School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin.

The theme for this meeting is Conflict and Contestation in the Early Modern World. The meeting will convene in Room J207-8, John Henry Newman Building, UCD, and the schedule is as follows:

1-1:30pm: Welcome

1:30-3:00pm: Panel
Chair: Dr Jane Grogan

Dr Marc Caball (UCD): ‘Hugh O’Neill and his Gaelic and Renaissance Cultural Context’

Professor Andrew Hadfield (Sussex): ‘James Shirley’s The Politician: Anglo-Irish Literature and Politics in the 1630s’

Dr Ann-Maria Walsh (UCD): ‘The Boyle Sisters and the Familial Correspondence Network: A Life-Line in Times of Civil Strife and Beyond’

3:00-3:30pm: Refreshments

3:30-4:30: Keynote
Chair: Dr Colin Lahive

Professor Nicholas McDowell (Exeter): ‘The Poetics of Civil War: Shakespeare to Marvell (to W.B.Yeats)’

4:30-5:00: Roundtable
Convener: Dr Naomi McAreavey

Early Modern Studies in Ireland: Current Locations, Future Directions

6:30: Dinner

The event is generously supported by the School of English, Drama and Film, UCD, and the Society for Renaissance Studies.

For further details on this meeting of the IRS, contact Dr Colin Lahive (colin.lahive@ucd.ie)

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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.

Report: Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles, Prince of Tyre in Cork

In mid-November 2015, the Irish Renaissance Seminar met in Marsh’s Library. The seminar theme “Time, Memory, and Commemoration” looked back back to the past but also looked expectantly to the future via an open discussion of plans for the Shakespeare quartercentenary. Many of the proposals which were aired at the meeting bore fruit and have been promoted and cataloged on this blog. My project “Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles, Prince of Tyre”, funded by the Irish Research Council New Foundations Scheme, was one of the final commemorative events in Irish universities in 2016.

The project’s primary aim was to make a unique contribution to the worldwide celebrations of Shakespeare 400. It sought too to inspire interest in Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama; to deepen our understanding of Shakespeare’s sources and his legacy; and to cultivate networks between scholars, theatre practitioners, and the general public. The project comprised a staged reading of Shakespeare’s critically-neglected late play Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c.1606) held in the Unitarian Church in Cork city, and a symposium and public lecture held in University College Cork.

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The Unitarian Church, Cork city

Although unfamiliar to a general audience, Pericles proved to be ideally suited to performance as a staged reading. Story-telling is central to its dramaturgy and, as its narrator Gower insists, the tale is designed to “glad your ear and please your eyes”. As hoped, the performance introduced a new audience to this little-known Shakespearean romance. Part of this new audience included the cast of community actors – students from UCC Drama and Theatre Studies and the local LittleShoes drama group – as Pericles was unfamiliar to them and indeed most had never performed Shakespeare before. After just two days of rehearsals we were delighted to take to the stage, with our director Sinead Dunphy, to perform for a packed house. The reading had in fact sold out quickly and we even had to secure extra chairs on the night – as the British Council’s Shakespeare 400 programme suggested, it seems that “Shakespeare Lives…in Cork”!

The reading attracted a diverse audience which included the general public, as well as UCC staff and students of all levels. Cork is a designated UNESCO Learning City and both during and after the project, it was evident that the performance inspired an enthusiastic response from the city’s lifelong learners. The production was filmed and is available online here. A scholarly review of the production can be found on Dr Peter Kirwan’s Bardathon blog.

In addition to the IRC New Foundations funding, the project was also supported by UCC’s CACSSS Graduate School, the UCC Information Services Strategic Fund, and UCC’s School of English. This group of supporters were invaluable when it came to organising the symposium/graduate masterclass which explored Pericles, its sources, and critical and performative history, as well as issues relevant to the plot. With papers that addressed a wide range of topics including Old English, Middle English, neo-Latin, Shakespearean drama, gender studies, and Shakespeare on film, the interdisciplinary symposium explored and enhanced our understanding of Shakespeare, his influences, and his place in the literary canon.

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Dr Peter Kirwan speaking at the “Celebrating Shakespeare 400: Performing Pericles” symposium in November 2016. 

The keynote public lecture, delivered by Dr Peter Kirwan (University of Nottingham), gave a rare insight into the herculean task of editing Pericles. The symposium concluded with a convivial roundtable on the performance of Pericles, involving the director, actors, and myself as project leader. Full details on the symposium’s schedule can be found here.

Report by Dr Edel Semple.

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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[Website info]

The Sonnet Man presents Hip Hop Shakespeare to Ireland in 2017

International Hip Hop Artist, The Sonnet Man, is preparing to visit various cities in Ireland.  While in Ireland, The Sonnet Man is also scheduled to present performances and sonnet-writing workshops to schools in Cork, Kilkenny, Carlow, and Wexford (among others) perform school assemblies, beginning with a performance at the Wexford Arts Centre.  Due to the interest, The Sonnet Man is also offering schools, theatres, and other venues the chance to sign up to be a part of The Sonnet Man Ireland Tour.

The Sonnet Man is Devon Glover, a rapper, writer, artist, and teacher from Brooklyn, New York.  The Sonnet Man uses hip hop to put a unique spin on Shakespeare. He sets sonnets first to rap music, singing them as originally written. Then, he raps them again, but with his own unique interpretation on The Bard’s poetry in today’s spoken word.

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The Sonnet Man

On April 24, 2016The Sonnet Man performed a three and half hour Sonnet Marathon, organized by the Stratford Literary Festival. He recited all 154 of William Shakespeare’s famous Sonnets, in Hip Hop, to hundreds of fans in Stratford Upon Avon, to celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare at the Stratford Literary Festival.

In addition to his festival work over the last five years, The Sonnet Man has presented live shows, as well as school assemblies and workshops, to thousands of people across the world (Prague, Netherlands, Bermuda, Canada, United States, including performing Sonnet 18 live in Negril, Jamaica, and more). The Sonnet Man has also appeared on NBC’s The Today Show and MSNBC’s (former) Melissa Perry-Harris Show and has been profiled on MTV. He has been honored as the winner of the 2014 LA Times Festival of Books Inspirational Poetry Award and has had his music video, Hamlet by filmmaker Deborah Voorhees, chosen as an official selection in the 2015 Shakespeare Film Festival. A number of other performances and workshops, including a trip to UK, France, and more cities in Ireland, and a Sonnet Man documentary film are also to come.

The Sonnet Man is always looking for more venues to sign up for The Sonnet Man’s Ireland tour. For more information about, please contact: sonnetmannyc@gmail.com or check out The Sonnet Man online at www.SonnetMan.com and on iTunes.