Director Geoff O’Keeffe fashions an intriguing interpretation of Claudius in an energetic production of Hamlet at the Mill Theatre Dundrum.
Prince Hamlet (Shane O’Regan) is in mourning for his father, Old Hamlet. But the rest of the court is celebrating as Old Hamlet’s brother Claudius (Neill Fleming) has succeeded not only to the throne, but also to the royal bed, unexpectedly marrying the widowed Queen Gertrude (Claire O’Donovan). But Hamlet’s isolated mourning turns to bloody thoughts of vengeance when his friend Horatio (Stephen O’Leary) reveals that Old Hamlet’s ghost has been haunting the battlements of Elsinore, and the ghost reveals Claudius as a murderous usurper. As Hamlet feigns madness to better hatch his revenge, the guilt-ridden Claudius seeks the aid of pompous counsellor Polonius (Damien Devaney), whose children Ophelia (Clara Harte) and Laertes (Matthew O’Brien) will become tragically ensnared in the mayhem that consumes the court, as will Hamlet’s untrustworthy university friends Rosencrantz (Paul Quinn Jr) and Guildenstern (Graeme Coughlan).
All Hamlets are alike; each Claudius is Claudius in its own way. O’Keeffe has Fleming play both Claudius and Old Hamlet, using Declan Brennan’s video projection to allow a hirsute Fleming loom over proceedings while a shaven Fleming commands the stage as the surviving brother. Fleming is inspired as an unpredictable King. Laertes almost flinches when begging permission to leave, as if Claudius might react violently. This is a man the court has yet to take the measure of, and he is given an unexpectedly hot-blooded relationship with Gertrude, as well as a jaw-dropping moment where he joins Hamlet’s laughing at his own bad pun before dispassionately punching him. Fleming’s Claudius edges close to Macbeth, possibly a good man before ambition and adulterous desire undid him. He is also surprisingly funny, many facial expressions giving a ‘Dear God, why must everything be so difficult?!’ exasperation at the courtiers he has won, culminating in a sardonic toast with the poisoned chalice.
O’Regan is a very physical Hamlet, dashing Ophelia to the ground in a rage that shocks himself, and later performing a flying leap on to Gertrude’s bed to pin her to it while he harangues her for marrying Claudius. But he also shrinks into a haunted crouch to deliver ‘To be or not to be’, as Kris Mooney’s lights dim and adopt one colour (blue, green, orange) during each soliloquy to bring us a privileged glimpse inside the mind of Hamlet or Claudius. O’Regan and O’Brien are noticeably youthful, believable as university students rather than the customary thirtysomethings. Gerard Bourke’s ingenious set design, steps leading down from a tall castle wall and a shorter glass-panelled wall, enables fluid movement between scenes, and O’Keeffe wrings some great laughs from offhand moments in the text. But where Keith Thompson chopped famous lines in his 2012 production, O’Keefe is less willing to wield scissors. Harte is a patient Ophelia, and Devaney conveys how sensible Polonius believes himself, but strict fidelity to their lines is a synecdoche of the show sacrificing pace for completeness.
This Hamlet undeniably loses momentum after the interval when it could use trimming, but its central disputants Hamlet and Claudius are given memorable life.
Hamlet continues its run at the Mill Theatre Dundrum until the 28th of October.