The Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival has arrived, and now one must choose from what’s on offer. On one hand you may be lured by the colourful spread laid out by international players who don’t visit often, with the exotic appeal of culturally-different, experimental, and physical material. Meanwhile, the enthusiasts of Irish theatre will commit themselves to seeing the who’s who of Irish companies who are also operating on full throttle.
While I may not be able to afford James Macdonald’s John Gabriel Borkman in the Abbey (which has enough impressive names attached to warrant a national holiday), I did get to see Pan Pan’s The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. My review of this excellent vivisection of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark right after I read out all my lines consecutively …
To describe The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane as a “vivisection” of Shakespeare’s original text feels appropriate. We are talking about “the beast” of English literature: the greatest tragedy written in the language. Directors have tackled this animal throughout the centuries, and have questionably failed or succeeded. A revival of an aged text may be treated as an attempt to overwrite its production history by succeeding where some have failed (Druid’s The Silver Tassie is said to dwarf previous flops that plague its history). Hamlet is timeless. It is not a war that can be won. There is no staging of Hamlet that is infinitely better than all the rest, and Pan Pan, who have been at the forefront of innovative theatre in Ireland for some time now, are well aware of this. Instead of trying to tame the beast, artistic director Gavin Quinn plays catch with it, using Yorick’s skull as the ball.
Before a single line of iambic pentameter is uttered, the play is academically addressed by Amanda Piesse of the School of English at Trinity College, who reads aloud an essay which describes the variables and ambiguities suggested by the conflicting contents of the “Quartos” or drafts of the original. Piesse’s conclusion is that Hamlet is a text which is indefinite in nature, and her hypotheses suggests that the philosophical enquiry of ‘meaning’ cannot find source in the characters’ facts and mission statements but rather in the degree of self-conscious performance that they allege to. Thus, Pan Pan presents us with their masterful conceit: Hamlet as ‘audition’. The audience find themselves privy to the casting process, as Quinn (in attendance himself, along with his stage manager and casting director) has three contenders perform their monologues to secure the role of Hamlet: an introverted but loyal Derrick Devine; Conor Madden, who is authentic in his insecurities and wild in spirit; and solid and confident Garret Lombard. The three perform not only for the director but for us as well. We come to know them as their own genuine and professional selves before one is to inherit the responsibilities and burdens of the tragic prince. They are aided through their endeavours by key talents that round off this wonderful cast: Andrew Bennet, Oliwen Fouéré, Daniel Riordon, and Judith Roddy. There are some really lovely moments here in the tickling of Shakespeare’s text, especially a rather moving performance by Devine who accesses Reynaldo’s fidelity to the point of naïve fragility. The first act is then crowned by the ingenious decision to allow the audience to vote for which actor the part of ‘Hamlet’ should be awarded.
It is in the composition of this first act and the novel aesthetic that Pan Pan are mavericks for that Quinn makes his incision into the Shakespearean animal. From establishing the actors in their personal and professional faculties as well as the theatrical mantle they are about to undertake, Playing the Dane moves into a territory on which the tragedy has never stood ground before. It is in this mystified landscape of mirrored halls, waxed candles and rubbish bins (gloriously designed by Aedín Cosgrove) that The Tragedy of Hamlet is effectively destabilized. Liberated from a long tradition of fixed interpretations are some of the finest literary compositions in the language, delivered now free from the staged falsehoods and facades affiliated with them. Madden (the chosen ‘Hamlet’ of the night, and justly so) proves to be an exceptional talent as he captures Hamlet’s “antic disposition” and the storm of emotions that coincide within it. He does this not necessarily with the athletics displayed during his audition in the first act, but rather with an almost effortlessness that renders moments such as “I am dead, Horatio” heartbreaking. While this straight performance is strangely effective there is also wildness and brooding in Madden’s Hamlet, all conditions of the prince’s relentless turmoil which he powerfully portrays in one instance when the young actor dances reckless and tormented to the melody of a classical piano. Judith Roddy’s Ophelia is powerful, and her “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” scene is undeniably one of the treasures of the play, and one of the most defying of tradition. Drenched in water and rubbish, Roddy, torn and tear-soaked, gives an unforgettable fracture to Ophelia’s laments as she hands out her assortment of flowers and litter to the audience. She then raises the iconic skull in an action renowned by Hamlet, and with equal importance and tragedy, weeps her own loss. Absolutely mesmerising, and completely epitomising of Laertes’ comment of when he first stumbles upon his sister’s torment:
Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness.
Late night bars are probably the best places to debate “post-dramatic” theatre, and whether or not we can use The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane as an example of it. Is something “post-dramatic” (which is a term I endorse but prefer to refrain from using at the risk of inducing eye-rolling and head-rubbing) mean something that defies theatrical tradition by default? If we are to acquire some definition of it from the scholars on the subject, we are to believe to be an abstraction – moving from imitation to independence; metaphor to metonymy. Playing the Dane is an abstraction, but it is not unfamiliar in the forms and devices it uses. It is not a rendition of Hamlet, but rather, in the sociological sense of the word, is a “liberation” independent of it which may or may not be welcomed. The show’s director is always present on stage and we never lose sight of this meta-narrative suggestion. The audience members are acknowledged as they first step into the room, and some even get to leave with a crushed beer can or wilted weed as a souvenir. This self-referential awareness is a recurring characteristic of other Irish practitioners whom could also be billed as “post-dramatic”, such as Úna McKevitt or The Company. Indeed, one of the most profound instances of the evening is an enactment of Hamlet’s awaiting of the Players, and Daniel Riordan as Polonius lists the theatrical genres (tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, etcetera) and then stops at the addition of “post-dramatic”, prompting a very lengthy pause. The moment is bold in its non-convention and ultimately provokes spectatorship to a degree beyond passive observance at a clockwork play.
I could go on and on about this exceptional work, and somehow I’ve managed to leave out any mention of Toby – the Great Dane – whose presence dispatches any fixed localisation of ‘Hamlet’. Piesse claims that ‘identity’ is not found in “To be” or “Not to Be”, but rather in the spaces in between. Our ‘selves’ are not confined by solid definition, as they are shapeless in their social faculties. It is in this respect then that perhaps ‘Hamlet’ is not a man, but rather a consciousness that may not only be inherited by a successful actor at an audition. ‘Hamlet’ is the strategy of social survival; an awareness inherent in every man, woman, and, apparently, dog. As for The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, this is a highly entertaining virtuoso of postmodernist practice, and like the members of Claudius' court, theatre enthusiasts will feel privileged to witness such a marvelling of antiquities.
What did everyone else think?