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Review: Hamlet at St. Ann’s Warehouse Is a Triumph of Production Over Performance

It’s hard to think of too many other productions that strive to stretch a Shakespeare play so far beyond its natural course.

Dan Rubins

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Hamlet
Photo: Ros Kavanagh

“This is too long!” exclaims Polonius about halfway through Hamlet when a visiting theater troupe offers a poetic reenactment of the death of Priam, the king of Troy. Prince Hamlet, who’s much more into this sort of thing than the less sophisticated Polonius (“He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps”), commands the players to cut the scene here—“It shall to the barber’s, with your beard”—and skip to the next part of the play.

Audiences might benefit from the presence of an imposing royal to speed things up at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where the transfer of a new, three-and-a-half-hour production of Hamlet from the Gate Theatre, Dublin is, well, to quote Polonius, too long. Yaël Farber’s staging of the show seeks to create some sort of definitive über-Hamlet with the blunt instruments of running time and incense. Except for compilation Shakespeares, like Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies, or, closer to home, the National Asian American Theatre Company’s Henry VI, which emphasize epic sprawl by stringing multiple plays together, I can’t think of too many other productions that strive to stretch a Shakespeare play so far beyond its natural course.

And Farber doesn’t do so in the name of Folio fidelity. In fact, some sizable cuts were made, but with the invading Fortinbras and all reference to the world outside of Denmark excised, where are all these extra minutes coming from? It’s partly the transitions between scenes, as the ensemble has been tasked with constantly moving furniture with ponderous stateliness. But for the most part the running time emerges from the actors’ uniformly protracted speech.

Pacing, though, is a director’s tool like lighting and sound and haze and fog effects. Any storytelling pace can be effective if there’s some real variety; I’ve reviewed unsuccessful takes on Hamlet that moved too briskly. Here, though, the tortoise-like crawl, like the fog that pours in from all directions, is ubiquitous. If the hope is that slow-mo Hamlet will allow audiences to pick up on lines or ideas that are passed over at more recognizably conversational tempos, there’s no such revelation here: Without any sense of momentum or acceleration or sudden pause, it’s hard to pinpoint any moment or motif that Farber intends to accentuate.

This Hamlet also takes itself tremendously seriously, sometimes to a preposterous extent. Tom Lane’s ominous soundscape of suspense strings, wistful piano licks, and distantly threatening booms underscores almost the entire play, a melodrama of unsubtle monotony unto itself. Ensemble members sometimes walk in aimless circles around the stage, as if partaking in a ritual with which they themselves are unfamiliar. At one early point, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) stands portentously in a grave flooding with rainwater, hollering Hamlet’s name.

That gray triumph of production over performance does a grave disservice to the talented ensemble of Irish actors, led by Ruth Negga as Hamlet. (The Oscar-nominated actress played Ophelia opposite Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre of England’s production of the play a decade ago.) Instead of having the space to craft individual portraits with their own rhythms and surprises, the cast seems to become cogs in the machine. At moments, Negga transcends her environment. She’s at her most arresting in the pair of scenes that open the play’s second half. Her Hamlet drapes his legs over the side of an armchair, lazily making demands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Barry McKiernan and Shane O’Reilly), the petulant epitome of a pampered prince. But Hamlet’s just playing the part, and he gleefully morphs into a ferociously commanding figure as he reveals the true meaning of his banter: He sees his companions for what they are, agents of King Claudius (Owen Roe) sent to spy on him. As he dresses his former friends down, Hamlet seems, suddenly, like a canny manipulator.

In the scene that follows, Hamlet attends upon his mother, Gertrude (Fiona Bell), greeting her with a slumping, adolescent, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” There’s seething, familiar tension in their mother-son battle, which boils, too, with the sense that they’re learning how little they really know each other: Gertrude actually believes for a few seconds, at least, that Hamlet might murder her. A relationship, for once here, comes sharply into focus.

That exchange ripples with the sort of clarity that Farber denies Negga from developing throughout her performance. Though some banter with Polonius (“Words, words, words,” etc.) lets Negga show off Hamlet’s verbal agility, her monologues embrace the general ethos of sluggishness. Part of the lasting interest in Hamlet comes from a sense that Shakespeare’s only letting us experience the tip of the iceberg: The character’s soliloquies are simply snapshots of thoughts surging through a brain in perpetual motion. If this Hamlet’s mouth works a mile a minute when he’s bewildering Polonius, why don’t we witness his mind do the same? Negga’s longer speeches carry a certain pre-packaged heaviness; Hamlet seems to have already considered every word before he starts talking so we seldom see thoughts spark in real time.

Farber opts for the most old-school, clichéd vision of the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Steve Hartland), all disembodied echoes and ambience; most of his scene with Hamlet is played from behind a white plastic scrim, which allows Hartland to make his way onto the stage from within the audience, where he first appears. As such, there’s no real sense of Hamlet’s relationship with his deceased namesake. Farber’s staging swallows up any sense of specificity about what Hamlet’s really lost, how he really experiences his grief, and who he really is.

By casting only the two Hamlets, the eponymous character and his ghostly father, with actors of color, this production hints at a color-conscious narrative about a majority-white country—and a white queen—that replaces its black leadership with dictatorial whiteness, sidestepping its biracial heir. Farber doesn’t ever engage with that strand of Hamlet’s isolation and ostracization in the wake of his father’s death—and if it’s not an intentional gesture of storytelling through casting, why isn’t there a more robustly diverse cast?

Shakespeare isn’t colorblind—at one point, Hamlet writes Ophelia a letter praising her “excellent white bosom”—so is this production trying to follow suit? The fact that Hamlet is played by a woman here doesn’t impact Farber’s storytelling (Negga clearly plays Hamlet as a male prince), but it’s hard not to take notice of the racial constellations of past and present power that shape this austere vision of Denmark. I’m also not sure why only Negga’s casting plays against gender. Lead performance aside, this is the most male-dominated cast of Hamlet I’ve ever encountered, featuring 12 male and three female actors.

With few exceptions, Farber drains the play of its humor, but Nick Dunning’s Polonius manages to score a handful of well-earned laughs. Dunning also nicely, unexpectedly shades Polonius’s contrasting treatment of his son, Laertes (Gavin Drea), and daughter, Ophelia. When he’s talking to Laertes, Polonius is all smiles and speaks with a jovial lilt, but his voice turns to a bass growl when he confronts Ophelia alone about her dalliance with Hamlet. (Duffin, a would-be impressively impetuous Ophelia, is particularly ill-served by the production, especially in a final scene in which she twice exposes herself, apparently in order to demonstrate that Ophelia is very definitely mad. I found Farber’s use of nudity in her 2017 adaptation of Salomé at the National Theatre in London similarly gratuitous.)

Most surprising about this Hamlet, though, is how unsurprising it is, how little of its running time is used to take risks or reinvent or explore the text in fresh terms. The most startlingly different moment comes with Claudius’s soliloquized confession, here delivered not to himself or the audience but to a priest who sneaks into the throne room, while Hamlet listens in behind that omnipresent armchair, and then absolves Claudius with a sung Latin prayer. For one thing, if Claudius has only just finished establishing his own fascist surveillance state teeming with spies, would he really risk confessing the double sin of regi-fratricide aloud, let alone without checking the room for eavesdroppers? He should know better.

But the bigger problem is that Farber continues to peel away at characters’ relationships with the audience. The subversive potency of Claudius’s soliloquy is that Hamlet cannot hear his uncle’s thoughts—only we can. Replacing our active presence as confidant diminishes the play’s engaging power. And it’s not only here that Farber does this, as Ophelia’s on stage for most of Hamlet’s first monologue, reacting to each line and then making out with him when he’s done speechifying. And once we’re shut out, once we lose our way into the minds of faraway figures who somehow seem more distant than ever, how can we hope, like Hamlet, to give into an actor’s “dream of passion?” To lose ourselves once again in that state of shared secret understanding between audience and actor is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Hamlet runs from February 1—March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

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