The haunted prince, in triplicate
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Above: Judith Roddy and Garrett Lombard. 

Photo: Ros Kavanagh

The haunted prince, in triplicate

It's a rehearsal of a rehearsal of a play-within-a-play. What? Susan Conley observes three Hamlets audition for the 'almost unplayable' role of the Prince of Denmark in Pan Pan's new version of Shakespeare for the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. 

When a journalist is given leave to enter the rehearsal room, it can be something of an artificial experience. The work will be genuine but the approach can be flavoured by the awareness that a stranger is witnessing the proceedings. There’s no chance that someone – preferably the director – is going to throw a strop. Too bad. It would make such a good lead.

Gavin Quinn appears to be the last director in Ireland who would throw his book across the room. As the second act of The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane unfolds, from time to time Quinn gently insinuates himself into the set, and guides the action along the way in which he would prefer it happen. Actions are repeated, by actors who are happy enough to do so, and the work flows, with very little intervention from any of the production team.

Given that the first act of the play takes the form of a rehearsal, there’s a conceptual aptness to an outsider’s presence in the room. Quinn, Pan Pan’s artistic director, work-shopped the piece last year, as part of the “in-development” programme run by Culture Ireland and Irish Theatre Institute, during the 2009 Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. “We did a performance of the first part for about eighty people, and it worked very well, after a short period of rehearsal, which meant that the idea was obviously very strong, because it didn’t require a lot of time to translate the idea,” he says. “I thought it was very good in the sense that it was immediate. We pursued it, and the second part [of the piece] is the finishing off of the idea. It’s not a known piece, it’s a piece we’re making with the text of Hamlet — but it is Hamlet.

It’s Hamlet in much the way that Mac-Beth 7 was the Scottish play. Premiered in 2004 in Project Arts Centre, Dublin, Pan Pan’s take on the Thane of Cawdor was set in a classroom, surely a horrifying flashback for much of the audience. In it, the use of multimedia to enhance and move the concept forward was (and still is) one of the most accomplished uses of technology in Irish theatre to date. Despite the use of up-to-date gizmos, the piece stayed true to the text, without recourse to tights and codpieces, or to the kind of contemporary approach that implies conspicuous consumption. “The problem with interpretation is that it manifests itself in different ways,” Quinn explains. “One way that it’s manifested itself is in the kinds of productions where Tybalt might arrive in a Ferrari, as an excuse to modernize the play.”

So, there was never a chance that this Hamlet would be set in twenty-first-century Dublin in the Foxrock mansion of a troubled construction potentate. “The landscape is not that important… We’re not trying to find the immediate connection to the contemporary world. Often when people try to find that immediate connection, it doesn’t always work.”

Rather, Quinn has chosen to present us with three Hamlets. “One of the ideas is about how Hamlets can be so different,” he says, “and it also engages the audience with degrees of knowledge about what Hamlet is, throughout the course of the first part of the show. It educates the audience, but also stimulates them into thinking about who should play Hamlet, and gives them a vested interest in what happens.” He adds, “This is really about trying to find a way of communicating the text in the here and now, and to find frames which will hopefully communicate the play in an enjoyable way for the audience.”

In a play that’s already well-haunted; each audience member is bound to bring in the spectre of the Dane that he or she has seen and admired, and has designated as the “perfect Hamlet”; upon seeing the play anew, many may wonder if the actor who is about to tread the boards can meet the expectations of the beloved shade (mine is Ralph Fiennes, in the Almeida production directed by Jonathan Kent in 1995; the production was excellent, but I also had a terrible schoolgirl crush on the actor, so take it with a grain of salt.)

“When you do anything about Hamlet, the first thing you should say is ‘Admit failure’. Your Hamlet will never satisfy anyone. It’s almost an unplayable part,” Quinn says. “There are people who do really characterful studies of Hamlet — I’m not really that interested in that. It’s material, of a certain era, and you find the connection with it, and you present that, and you hope that people will trust your intentions, and not make comparisons to other plays, and respect the intentions of the artists that are working on it, and take it or leave it.”

So, as the interloper in the room, you see that everyone is on their best behavior. You cut your losses, hoping to come out with some sort of impression of the piece, reckoning that fifteen, twenty minutes of observation will do … but then the work unfolds, and the text is spoken, and the words, the words weave the spell that they do, catch you up in the action that is, on the surface, frustrating inaction, and before you know it, almost an hour has gone by. “You forget how amazing the text is, and just how enjoyable it is to hear,” says Quinn. “Just hearing the text well-spoken — there’s so much aesthetic enjoyment in that. The play is unbelievably sophisticated and contemporary in many ways, and it’s something that is so good that it’s very enjoyable to work on.”

Susan Conley is an author and journalist.

The Rehearsal: Playing the Dane, produced by Pan Pan, runs at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin from 5-10 October, as part of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival 2010.



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