Ruth Negga makes a mesmeric Hamlet in Yael Farber’s production for the Gate Theatre.
At the start, she appears unbearably small and sad, blanketed in grief, broken by it, but soon the light returns to her eyes – she has such expressive eyes – and she seems to grow in size.
Negga is not playing Hamlet as a woman – male pronouns are used throughout and her short hair, slight frame and the way she wears her white shirt buttoned up to the neck give her a non-binary vibe. Her comparative slightness intensifies her vulnerability and isolation. Most of the other characters loom over her.
She’s a nimble prince. Negga delivers the “what a piece of work is man” soliloquy with delicacy and intimacy, and there’s an electricity between her and Aoife Duffin’s Ophelia that makes her later rejection all the more devastating.
However, while moments of Farber’s production are distinctive and thrilling, others are a lot more conventional. Hamlet’s first encounter with his father, a profoundly moving scene in Robert Icke’s recent version, is here fairly inert. Farber’s production also minimises the potential for comedy. Hamlet’s two school friends have been fused into Barry McKiernan’s Rosenstern, doing away with any potential for mistaken identity. Polonius (Nick Dunning) is also more earnest than usual.
More successfully, the gravediggers – decked out like exiles from a Beckett play – are not tools of light relief, but something more forbidding. They are increasingly present on stage as the play progresses, shovels in hand, harbingers of death.
Susan Hilferty’s striking set consists of a series of inky black doors, beyond which are even more doors: so many exits, but no way of escape. While Owen Roe’s nuanced Claudius sports a fascist get-up and Fiona Bell’s Gertrude favours FLOTUS chic, Farber’s production has no specific setting. This is Elsinore as purgatory or memory palace. Plastic sheeting is used to shroud the corpses and to denote the line between this world and the next. Gertrude’s bedchamber consists of an elevated red mattress, a splash of colour in a dark world. The whole production is beautifully lit by Paul Keogan.
Duffin is particularly impressive as Ophelia. Hers is a strong, satisfying take on a role that can be challenging – Negga, for example, when playing Ophelia opposite Rory Kinnear at the National Theatre, was saddled with silly shopping trolley. Duffin plays the role as a woman untethered. First, her lover rejects her, then he kills her father. It’s too much. In her last scene, she emerges in a damp silk slip, flowers in her hair, sing-speaking her songs – her own ghost.
Though at times this production is more atmospheric than it is innovative, it grows in intensity towards the end – Farber really knows how to do intensity: earth, incense, ominous music, more billowing sheeting. Meanwhile, Negga is an inspired choice as Hamlet – playful, vulnerable, resilient, radiant.
The Stage’s travel and accommodation at the Dublin Theatre Festival was supported by Tourism Ireland.