Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Act V, scene ii. The death of Hamlet

Eugene Delacroix lithograph, 1843

Director Sam Dowling’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most widely-read play is a treat for both devotees and initiates. Though tightly compressed into a neat two hours, the production completely engages with the text and consistently hits its thematic and dramatic high notes while retaining the sense of urgency and economy which comes with a small scale staging.

The Praxis Theatre Laboratory works out of County Roscommon, and has only come to Dublin at the tail end of an Irish tour which has even taken in some of the off-shore Islands. Eight actors fill the various roles in Hamlet, including director Dowling himself as Polonious, the gravedigger, and the priest. The lead is portrayed by William Rowsey, a Moscow-trained actor who paces his performance well. Though he starts with the traditional melancholy Dane and works in a low-key mode, he gets to run the gamut of insanity, uncertainty, and energetic self-referentiality as our hero goes through his various phases of performance and self-realisation on his path to righteous revenge. The actor’s piercing blue eyes and fair complexion are a happy accident, but he makes use of his lean physique and high-set facial features to suggest a youthful skittishness which suits the part well.

The star turn comes from Aidan Redmond in the role of Claudius. He is grave and commanding, capable of switching from feigned sincerity and sorrow to diabolic villainy with only slight changes in manner. Once or twice he gives full vent to roars of anger which are truly believable and one gets a definite sense of a regent who has murdered his way to power and intends to keep it at all costs. Redmond also portrays the ghost in a useful conceit which plays upon the fact that the characters are brothers.

Dowling does a generally good job with Polonius, although it is difficult to get the balance right between oafishness and deviousness at the best of times, and the actor tends towards the former too often in an attempt to engage the crowd. He handles the tricky dialogue well though and the part works as it should. Carol Brophy is an effective Ophelia. She handles the descent into madness without hysteria and sets the scene for the return of Laertes (portrayed by Sean Duggan) with a well timed delivery of the line "My brother shall hear of this." The casting of Francophone Olivier Schneider as Horatio might have spelled disaster had it not worked, but fortunately his distinctive accent gives the character an interesting cosmopolitan texture against which Rowsey plays well. Maria Straw is not bad as Gertrude, although she seems to lack presence beside Rowsey and Redmond. The psychological contrast between Laertes and Hamlet plays out well in the last act with the help of Duggan’s well-crafted rage and Rowsey’s newfound calm. The climactic swordfight is surprisingly exciting given that the actors merely wear gloves to indicate they are holding weapons.

Watching the play under Dowling’s direction reminds the audience of how clear and simple the lines of narrative and characterisation are. Pared to its essentials, this is still a very powerful work of theatre which creates a world of political intrigue in which action flows perfectly from character in a way that it sometimes does not in, for example, Julius Caesar. Anchoring the drama with the rich and endlessly re-interpretable Hamlet, the plot lines and secondary roles feed from this central hub without dulling them as elements of drama in their own right. There are many levels of conflict here, and there are confrontations between almost all of the characters which reveal new depths of information and narrative. All of the key moments are in here, and Dowling has cheekily opted to hold onto Guildenstern while dumping Rosencrantz (and Osric, for that matter) to paper over the cracks.

The director has been clever in his use of the Crypt space in staging, as characters move into the alcoves and remain visible while the main actor takes place in the centre of the floor. This has the effect of reminding the audience of their presence even if they are not on stage, and it allows a small amount of secondary action to take place which the audience may or may not focus upon if they choose. The direction on the whole is quite lively, which matches the stripped-down script Dowling has chosen to work with. The pace is perhaps a little too breathless in the last act though, and the final massacre seems to happen almost in a blur which doesn’t really give enough room to savour the various ironies and tragedies.

Hamlet is a text which has stood up to a variety of re-interpretations over the years, including the modernisations in Hamlet 2000 and The Bad Sleep Well. Following the Rattlebag Theatre Company’s rendition of Julius Caesar at the Crypt in September, one might have expected an attempt to do something similar with this production. It is nice to see that re-interpretation can also take the form of judicious (and respectful) editing. The costuming, though minimal, attempts to retain a sense of the play’s original setting. Whatever contemporary political and psychological re-reading the audience comes away with was something they started with in the first place and if this is an apt tale for contemporary Ireland then it is so because it is now as it always has been; a universal existential drama of human angst.