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In ‘Hamlet,’ Ruth Negga Rules as a Player Prince

by Ben Brantley on February 19, 2020

Yaël Farber’s stunning, Dublin-born interpretation of this eternal classic finds the dizzying layers of performance that rule all our lives.

The prince is, on first impression, a small person. The title character in the Gate Theater of Dublin’s thrilling production of “Hamlet,” which opened on Monday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn under the inspired direction of Yaël Farber, initially registers as a fine figurine of a man, delicate of frame and feature.

Do not underestimate him. There is great stature in his sorrow and his rage. He can think circles around any hulking politician, and he moves as fast he thinks. You just know that he is always the smartest person in any room he occupies. And that this is both his blessing and his curse.

Hamlet is portrayed by the Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga, and the double-sidedness of this most complex of Shakespeare’s heroes has rarely been better served. Negga, best known to American audiences for her Oscar-nominated role in the 2016 film “Loving,” has created a portrait of the theater’s most endlessly analyzed prince that is drawn in lines of lightning.

Though the text places his age around 30, this Hamlet seems both younger and wiser than such a number would indicate. He has the outraged, childlike astonishment of someone surprised by hard grief for the first time in his life — and a concomitant disgust for the corrupt adult world that has shaped his existence.

Yet there is a part of him that sees beyond his immediate feelings and sneers at them. Hamlet can’t help reveling in the sheer, artful nimbleness of his mind, nor can anyone who sees Negga’s remarkable performance in this fast, fluid production. At the same time, he aches with an awareness of how small such displays of intellect are in terms of the really big picture, the one dominated by the shadow of death.

I started to write that the fact that this man is played by a woman is irrelevant. But there is one sense in which the basic disparity between this actress and this role feeds the quickening sensibility that infuses every aspect of Farber’s interpretation, which cannily condenses and rearranges the text for speed and focus.

For what is conveyed here with glittering incisiveness is the work’s sense of life as theater, in which playing roles expands and constricts the possibilities in being human. In this world, Negga’s Hamlet rules as the Player Prince.

That worldview is achieved without the winking, meta-theatrical touches that have become so familiar in contemporary Shakespeare. Farber — the South African-born creator of viscerally stirring reimaginings of classics like “Miss Julie” and “The Crucible” — understands that there is no need to add layers of directorial self-consciousness when your main character is the ultimate self-conscious auteur.

Hamlet, you may recall, is the guy who — after he discovers his dad has been murdered by his uncle (and new stepfather) — decides to put on “an antic disposition,” the better to enact revenge under the cloak of assumed madness. He stages a whole play to “catch the conscience of the king.”

He is never more relaxed than in the company of a traveling troupe of actors. More than with his girlfriend, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) or best friend, Horatio (Mark Huberman); certainly more than with any member of his family, Hamlet feels close spiritual kinship with these journeyman thespians. They, at least, know they’re playing parts.

photo by Sara Krulwich at The New York Times
photo by Sara Krulwich at The New York Times

Accordingly — as impeccably realized by Susan Hilferty (set and costumes) John Torres (lighting) and Tom Lane (music and sound) — the palace of Elsinore is not presented as the futuristic surveillance state so common to recent productions. Instead, its look is part fairy-tale playhouse (cascading curtains play a spectacularly evocative role), part Magritte-tinged surrealism (death assumes the implicit form of three vacant-eyed men in bowler hats, pulling corpses on gurneys).

An awareness of an audience is also essential to this mise-en-scène. Hamlet’s first soliloquy is spoken to a confidante, Ophelia, whom at that point he feels he can trust. The wicked Claudius (Owen Roe, fabulous as a manipulative Fascist for the ages) delivers his aborted prayer of repentance not to an unseen God but to a very visible priest, whom the King winds up manhandling.

When Hamlet stages his “mousetrap” play — in which performers replicate the murder of his father — the members of the court take their seats in an empty aisle in the audience. That means that all of us, not just Hamlet, are craning our necks to clock the reactions of Claudius and his queen, Gertrude (Fiona Bell).

Negga’s Hamlet is never happier than when he’s masterminding such snares of illusions. That is, until he remembers why he’s doing what he’s doing to begin with. And beneath it all, always, lurks the awareness of death. Negga’s quicksilver performance keeps recalibrating all these levels of reaction.

Too often, when a Hamlet is this good, I’m impatient whenever he’s not onstage. Not so this time. Everyone else — and I mean everyone, including the thunderous ghost of Hamlet’s father (Steve Hartland); a Polonius who postures like a matinee idol manqué (Nick Dunning); and his fire-breathing son, Laertes (Gavin Drea) — is filled with surprises and insights. Their relationships are defined in startling physical details, especially in how they touch one another. (Note the repeated coercive wrist grip in different contexts.)

As incarnated by Duffin (who similarly exposed all nerves in the ravishing monologue play “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing”), Ophelia is a young woman whose nascent sexual awakening makes her dangerously vulnerable to shame. Her relationship with Hamlet is painfully credible here, rendered in the heartbreaking terms of young lovers who feel they have only each other to stand against the world — and then realize they don’t have even that.

Bell’s Gertrude is a hard pragmatist when we first meet her, seemingly able to live comfortably with her Faustian bargain for power. (Is it a coincidence that her dress for Claudius’s triumphal inaugural scene brings to mind Melania Trump?) But in the famous encounter in Gertrude’s bedroom, when Hamlet visits her after the play-within-the-play, something remarkable happens.


Negga with Fiona Bell, who portrays Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Photo by Sara Krulwich at The New York Times
Negga with Fiona Bell, who portrays Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Photo by Sara Krulwich at The New York Times

Gertrude and Hamlet, who have been playing defensive roles with each other since we first met them, suddenly find themselves alone face to face, and their masks fall. For just a few beautiful, lacerating moments, they are the blood-bound mother and son, nurturer and child, that on some level they have always been. And that kind of emotional honesty forces them to see clearly the damage they have done in choosing to play unnatural parts.

Such occasions — and there is a generous multitude of them here — gloriously confirm Hamlet’s statement that the role of acting is to hold “the mirror up to Nature.” In this “Hamlet,” that mirror gleams and dazzles.

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