Sunday, April 3, 2011

Second Age, ‘Hamlet’: The Tale of the Two Princes

Town Hall Theatre, Galway
Mar 29-Apr 1

My review of Hamlet coming up just as soon as I beseech you instantly to visit my too much changed son ...

Not usually would I find myself purchasing a ticket for a Second Age production. Having attended a few of their plays in the last few years, I’ve found Alan Stanford and company focusing more on bringing in its target demographic (Junior and Leaving Cert students who have said play on their curriculums) than on the presences of these timeless characters. Actors nail their lines and execute the obvious actions but rarely do they resonate. It feels as if we are watching a clinical remastered version of the original, fulfilling our expectations of events and characters in their motivations, neglecting the personal relationships that forge these loyalties and betrayals. It’s a harsh opinion, and one I was prepared to dispense of when I heard that Connor Madden – who gave a very impressive performance in Pan Pan’s ‘Irish Times Theatre Awards Best Production’ winner: The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane – had been cast in Second Age’s latest reboot. Madden’s Hamlet from that show was one of imperishable conviction, acrobatically armed with poise and unrelenting risk that made his moments of self-doubt all the more hurt and sad to watch. Madden was then injured into the tour and had to sit out the remainder of the run (I wish him all the best in his recovery) and Second Age improvised by putting Marty Rea in his place, who won the ‘Irish Times Theatre Awards Best Actor’ award for playing the role last year. As much as I was looking forward to seeing  Madden in the lead, I had high hopes for Rea and was willing to let him convince me notherwise of my opinion of Second Age.

Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks places her Hamlet in current times, donning members of the court in respectable suits and the soldiers of Elsinore khaki-dressed and armed with assault rifles. More commendable is her treatment of theatrical space, as Spillane-Hinks materialises the scheming complexity of the play’s nature with Alyson Cummins’ set. The columns of the court fold to create an exterior ideal for skulking spies to hide behind angles and eavesdrop on enemies.

Rea’s Hamlet is electric, jolting from rage to comic deprecation in a fashion that renders visible the most saddening aspect of the character’s “antic disposition”: his insecurity. He wields Shakespeare’s verbosity with intention and imagination, charismatically skipping circles around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (“You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; and there is music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak”) and skewering Claudius with deadly wit (“[Polonius is] In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him in the other place yourself”). Rae playfully moves with every jest, cautiously treads with every reserve. He gives great consideration to the littlest gesture as he navigates the prince through the plots against him. Darragh Kelly’s Polonius is also a highlight, realising paternal concern and courtly buffoonery in a very human performance, and Peter Daly shows sweet humility as the loyal Horatio.

However, there are many hit and misses here. Anna Shiels-McNamee (a rich comic in Spillane-Hinks’ Boston Marriage last October) is lost here as Ophelia, giving preference to frustration and anger rather than to the delicate sentimentality and poetry that makes the character’s demise devastating. As Aonghus Óg McAnally’s Laertes remarks on his sister’s torment - “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness” – we are left wondering what little “prettiness” there is to this lost, angry girl. Claudius is one of Shakespeare’s most ruthless and slimy villains but Frank McCusker’s frightened demeanour makes it hard to believe this master strategist would be capable of plucking a chicken, forget murder. McAnally lacks the resolve and cunning of Laertes that usually makes him Hamlet’s equal, instead charging headstrong into matters. This “sea of troubles” amounts to a very clumsy affair.

Despite Marty Rea’s uncanny performance, Second Age’s Hamlet not only further fuels my disinterest in the company’s work, but, frustratingly in this circumstance, showcases weak performances by individuals who on past occasions I have really liked. “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!”. Sure, as long as the box office is happy, why not?

What did everybody else think?

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