by Helen Shaw on February 19, 2020
When you produce Hamlet, you don’t cast your lead player to fit the show so much as you fit the show around your actor. It’s unfair to place so much on one performer’s shoulders—particularly when the play itself has such wild flaws (remember the part with pirates? No one else does, either) and such immense cultural weight. But that’s the way it’s got “to be,” the fardel you have to bear: Synchrony between Hamlet and Hamlet is crucial, since the mind of one is the mind of the other.
That harmony is what’s missing in the touring production now at St. Ann’s Warehouse, a glamorous (and already sold-out) hit from Dublin’s Gate Theatre. The actor Ruth Negga’s logic and director Yaël Farber’s logic are different—one is about motion and brightness, the other about style and gloom. The two do agree on a certain monumentality, so every famous line (a.k.a. the vast majority) is delivered emphatically for maximum poetic impact. But Farber’s lapidary production is the wrong container for Negga’s antic Dane, despite the star’s enviable set of theatrical gifts.
Farber does make several strong choices that could have been truly great had they been carried through. She has the usurper King Claudius (a nicely blustery Owen Roe) give his introductory speech as if he’s Mussolini on a balcony, for instance, and her vision here is precise, cinematic, and instructive. For that scene, Farber has recalculated the pressures and threats of life in Elsinore: You note Claudius’s panic over his nephew Hamlet’s popularity much differently after you’ve heard the crowds roaring from the front of the palace. The show turns swiftly away from such thoughts, though, concerned less with meaning than with emotion and blunt impact.
Farber changes the rules for several of Shakespeare’s soliloquies by inserting silent characters, so that people who once declaimed their thoughts alone sometimes have in-scene audiences to make the moment more realistic. In this production, for instance, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) stays onstage for Hamlet’s first long speech (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt”), draping herself over his chair and kissing him from time to time—a supportive move for a girlfriend whose lover is talking about suicide, but a puzzle later on, when Ophelia seems baffled by Hamlet’s wild behavior. Didn’t she hear all that stuff about flesh melting? And Claudius usually muses on his inability to pray in Act 3 by himself, but Farber inserts a random priest, which turns the scene into a formal act of confession. Here Farber’s invention hamstrings the irony. A peeping-Hamlet believes he’s found his kneeling stepfather at actual prayer, and he shies away from killing a man in the process of speaking with God. (He doesn’t want Claudius to get to go to heaven on a technicality.) But we can hear Claudius saying that “my thoughts remain below.” If there’s a priest there, Claudius is confessing, he’s engaging with the church, he’s doing something holy. Yet if he’s alone, as Shakespeare wrote him, then we can see simultaneously his perfidy and Hamlet’s error. Whoops.
The production takes place in a hypersaturated zone, a Peter Greenaway palette of velvety reds and blacks, a place for ravishment, not for thinking. Susan Hilferty’s set under John Torres’s stark lighting is frequently gorgeous—scene after scene looks as though it’s auditioning for Hamlet: The Coffee-Table Book, as shot by Annie Leibovitz. (Farber accentuates this effect by sometimes having people stand in fashion-shoot arrangements, instead of in the way people would actually be in a room.) Hilferty’s set consists of three walls of tall black doors around a black floor. It’s always smoky—a censer fills the place with an oily cloud at the top of the show—and never daytime, even if someone says they’re waiting for night to fall.
But design, even handsome design, can be a heavy weight. Hamlet’s many modes—comedy, political intrigue, revenge thriller, psychological investigation—are being collapsed into a single atmosphere in the foggy horror-movie gloom. Hilferty’s done clever work in surrounding the action with a dozen coffinlike doorways, particularly since everyone in Elsinore is always spying on everybody else. Farber, though, underuses the doors. When Hamlet cries “let the door be locked!,” nobody moves to shut even one of them.
This world does look great, and it sets Negga’s elfin beauty off perfectly. But Farber’s passion for the well-curated image keeps turning over-obvious and even self-negating. Whenever someone’s about to die, one of the gravediggers appears in the back and starts singing eerily, just in case you didn’t get that death isn’t much fun. And Ophelia enters for her mad scene absolutely soaked. Why? It’s very hard to get that wet before you go off to drown.
So Negga carries the show—or, rather, she tows it behind her. The brooding mise-en-scène is a black hole, but she never stops pouring energy into it: she shines, pouts, smiles, grabs people by the shirtfront, prowls, crab-walks, dances, and flings herself onto the floor. The combination of her tininess (at one point she hides behind an armchair by just slightly inclining her head) and her eager, put-me-in-Coach physicality makes her Hamlet a particularly young one: This sweet prince is only just past the teenage tantrum stage, still prey to swift moods and triumphant sulks. When Hamlet nails his creepy uncle with his sneaky play-within-a-play gambit, Negga struts around like a bantam rooster. When Gertrude (Fiona Bell) chastises her son, Negga sticks her hands deep in her pockets and scowls, scuffing the ground like a Norman Rockwell newsboy caught with a dirty face. She inverts the play’s tragic vector, so her final moments are light, even ecstatic—once she tells us that the “readiness is all,” she rises up into Hamlet’s ugly fate with relief and joy.
There’s too much consciousness of the text’s grandeur in her performance, which slows her lines down, well under the “trippingly on the tongue” pace the play itself recommends. And we don’t get much of Hamlet’s legalistic brain, in which the young scholar keeps building cases against himself and then destroying them. Nor does her vigor build relationships with other actors onstage, who seem to be in another play entirely. As it is, though, her work is memorable — accessible, clear, exciting, vivid. The character’s constant preoccupation is action and the lack of it, and as Hamlet comes into his own, Negga shimmers with the thrill of finally doing what has long been talked about. Her enormous eyes, searchlights which seem to see around corners, are suspicious for four and a half acts. But by the end, she’s discovered action, and she beams the good news out to us like a lighthouse finding ships at sea.