Marty Rea as Hamlet and Barbara Brennan as Gertrude in Second Age Theatre Company’s production of 'Hamlet'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Marty Rea as Hamlet and Barbara Brennan as Gertrude in Second Age Theatre Company’s production of 'Hamlet'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Marty Rea as Hamlet & Maeve Fitzgerald who is playing the role of Ophelia in Second Age Theatre Company’s production of 'Hamlet'. Photo: Anthony Woods

Marty Rea as Hamlet & Maeve Fitzgerald who is playing the role of Ophelia in Second Age Theatre Company’s production of 'Hamlet'. Photo: Anthony Woods

The current Second Age production of Hamlet, with Marty Rea in the title role, interprets the Danish prince as less the hesitant decision maker or manic depressive, and more the savvy political inheritor of his royal blood. Although it is the annual offering from the Leaving Cert syllabus, this production is exquisitely realised for a wider audience.

Updated to a Brontë-era setting, with a gothic feel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights imagery, the impressive set design from Maree Kearns sees a simple array of grey panel doors on either side of the stage and an illuminated slanting platform, rear centre stage; the design easily facilitates the various scene changes. As the play advances, the colour and glamour of Victorian style (costume design by Leonore McDonagh) make for a visually stunning ensemble, alternatively atmospheric and haunting in its gloomy appearance, with howling wind sound effects and smoky lighting, as in the early ghost scene. Sinead McKenna’s lighting bathes the set in a variety of subtle tonal shades and shadows befitting the mood of each scene.

There are as many interpretations of Hamlet as there have been performances; so many great and good directors and actors have sought to deconstruct the ambiguities of the characters. Many interpreters of the young Hamlet embody the character with a basic goodness that is tainted by the evil surrounding him. Rea’s performance gives credence to this premise, but also enjoins to depict the wounded prince as a man of developed intellect who seeks to understand his position before he acts upon instinct.

Under Alan Stanford's direction, Rea brings to the fore a character that is less laden with melancholia than with purposeful thought. Where a common view of Hamlet is that his failure is directly related to his negative, depressed state and his inability to make a decision, Stanford directs him as an astute man with a dilemma to resolve: he is torn between the wishes of his father’s ghost to seek revenge and the morality of avenging the king’s murder. This Hamlet is at once morally questioning and anomalously manipulative.

This Hamlet is imbued with guts and cunning, his portrayal of insanity but a cloak and a tool he deploys to outwit his detractors and enemies. Rea delivers all the familiar soliloquies not as the ravings of a madman but more as the determined statements and thoughts of a skilled political thinker, working out his options and avoiding the detection of his motives by playing up to the perception of him as unstable.

Against Rea’s superb 'acting' of madness, Maeve Fitzgerald’s Ophelia is a skilful portrayal of a sensible but idealistic nature heralded into the abyss by the actions of others. This seems to be the key to this production: Hamlet’s words and actions compositely show him as having control over his destiny, where Fitzgerald gives an unnerving performance of a woman transported by a fate she cannot resist from idealistic optimism depositing in the end a convincing vacant staring ghost of a once beautiful girl. And it is her portrayal that truly highlights the cunning of Hamlet.

Claudius is played rather expertly by Garrett Keogh as a calm and politically skilled leader, who keeps his motives nicely hidden behind a cool exterior. Barbara Brennan’s Gertrude is a portly bust and bodkin Queen played as a sly madam hiding behind a pretend veil of ignorance, choosing to ignore her son’s pleas and protestations to protect herself and her kingdom from a reality that would shatter the comfortable shelter of her union with Claudius. Stephen Brennan brings an expressive and playful signature to the sarcastic Polonius, and Shawn Sturnick’s Laertes offers a gung-ho, let’s get the job done portrayal.

Second Age’s Hamlet is a masterly achievement with a strong cast, all of whom knit together in a series of encounters to reveal the complexities and contradictions of human nature. This production excels because it puts through the colander once again this great story and, like a historian, reinterprets the past political landscape, while giving us another perspective on the main players.

Breda Shannon is a freelance writer and reviews books for The Irish Examiner.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

4 February - 26 March, 2010

Produced by Second Age Theatre Company
In Town Hall Theatre, Galway (on tour)

Directed by Alan Stanford

Set Design: Maree Kearns

Costume Design: Leonore McDonagh

Lighting Design: Sinead McKenna

With: Marty Rea, Garrett Keogh, Stephen Brennan, Barbara Brennan, Maeve Fitzgerald, Will Irvine, Shawn Sturnick, John Olohan, David O’Meara, Sarah Kinlen, Will O’Connell, Marcus Lamb, Stephen Bradley, Alan King, and Robbie O’Connor.