The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Plastic Theatre Productions presents 'Hamlet' at the Pearse Centre. Photo: David Prior

Plastic Theatre Productions presents 'Hamlet' at the Pearse Centre. Photo: David Prior

Plastic Theatre Productions presents 'Hamlet' at the Pearse Centre. Photo: David Prior

Plastic Theatre Productions presents 'Hamlet' at the Pearse Centre. Photo: David Prior

“Frailty, thy name is woman.” The declaration in the first act of Hamlet is not merely the grief-stricken Prince of Denmark's attempt to rationalise the flight of his widowed mother into the arms of his father's killer. It can also be read as a subtle put-down of all of womankind. After this, every all-female production of Hamlet, like Plastic Theatre's version at the Pearse Centre, inevitably contains an undertone of rebuke to the Bard.

Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899, and all-female productions of the tragedy are hardly new. Plastic Theatre promises a new twist to this formula – a “gender bending Viking Jazz mash-up” – that sadly fails to deliver either a surreal unravelling or a feminist critique of one of Shakespeare's most famous works.

'Hamlet' presented by Plastic Theatre Productions.It is not just Hamlet's literary grandeur that attract all-female casts. Hamlet shows patriarchy at its ugliest. After five acts of relentless political scheming and “casual savagery”, most of the cast lay dead. The presence of only women on the stage might allow us the best opportunity to reconsider the gender connection to the mad streak of violence at Hamlet's underbelly – and the subjugation of its two central female characters, Gertrude and Ophelia.

The production, designed by Keith Alan Seybert, opens to a cold Scandinavian night with Francisco (Kate Coppinger) and Bernardo (Aine Dillen) keeping guard on Elsinore dressed like Prohibition-era gangsters. When the Ghost (Sharon Sutton) appears to saxophone flourishes a few minutes later, s/he is dressed as a viking en route to a dinner dance at Valhalla. Directors Jane Mulcahy and Anarosa De Eizaguirre Butler seem intent on creating a stylistic dissonance that unfortunately undermines the coherence of the production. The between-scene bebop and the vintage suits worn by some of the cast seem to roughly locate this production somewhere in 'The Jazz Age', but the allusions to the era never go deeper than costume or soundtrack. Similarly, beyond the play's setting in Denmark, the Viking theme seems to only involve characters occasionally wearing plastic horned hats borrowed from the Dublin Viking boat tour. The set is bare bar a deer skull and antlers, a throne and a coffin that comes and goes.

The cast is mostly comprised of young actors, many of whom were performing Shakespeare for the first time. Jane Mulcahy's performance as a short-haired, bow-tied Hamlet is uneven. After the visit of the ghost, she 'Hamlet' presented by Plastic Theatre Productions.becomes bouncy and manic. Her physical acting captures Hamlet's descent into madness in an off-beat and sometimes humorous way, but she does not summon the raw distemper that would allow the audience to trawl the depths of the prince's existential crisis. Anna McGrath (Claudius) and Elisabeth Anne Smiddy (Polonius) both felt somewhat wooden in their roles and their fluency in the Elizabethan tongue, while welcome, only tended to expose the inexperience of the rest of the cast. Helen O'Reilly dons a military uniform to play Laertes and provides one of the play's stand-out performances; she is full of a muscular rage upon returning from France after the death of Polonius. Maybe the most notable missed opportunity of the production is that Erika McGann and Candy Fitzgibbon played the female leads of Gertrude and Ophelia completely straight. They wore evening dresses and seemed oblivious to the gender bending happening around them. Ultimately, the genius of Shakespeare's prose became a burden as the cast laboured through this three-hour performance.

One can forgive a production of Hamlet for not reaching the emotional heights of the world's great theatre companies, just as one can lament a Hamlet production that does not dare to attempt something different. The female cast of this Hamlet tie their hair back and wear pants and ties, but the undressing of masculinity stops there. Despite the undertones of incest, there is nothing provocative in Hamlet's interactions with Gertrude, and even his flirtations with his beloved Ophelia contain only brief sparks of chemistry. It was only the vindictive utterances of the assassinated king, delivered like an action movie villain, that seemed unusual, and thus insightful.

Though this production felt intimidated by this archetypal work, there were two very engaging set pieces that made one think twice. The directors imagine the 'The Mouse Trap' – the play within the play – as a ribald live-action vaudevillian silent film. It is by far the highlight of the evening. Likewise, the Gravedigger swaggers around the stage at the beginning of Act V, fondling skulls and pondering decay in a embellished working-class Dublin accent (in a nice twist, the famous Gravediggers pub in Glasnevin provided sponsorship to the production). These were two different spins on well-worn theatrical fodder and one wishes this experimental spirit gripped the entire production. That Irene Byrne acted in both of these scenes seems hardly a coincidence.

The professionalism of the cast was tested by two electrical fuse outages during the night I attended, challenges that were overcome. I left this Hamlet with a greater appreciation for the sheer difficulty of staging this monumental work.

Donald Mahoney is a writer and journalist based in Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

28 June - 9 July, 2011

Produced by Plastic Theatre Productions
In the Pearse Centre

Directed by Jane Mulcahy and Anarosa De Eizaguirre Butler

Set Design: Keith Alan Seybert

Lighting Design: Cleo McCann

Movement Coach: Tom Butler

With: Jane Mulcahy, Anna McGrath, Erika McGann, Elisabeth Anne Smiddy, Helen O'Reilly, Candy Fitzgibbon, Irene Byrne, Shona Weymes, Klara McDonnell, Fiona Colhoun, Karoline Rose O'Sullivan, Deirdre Jones, Kate Coppinger, Aine Dillen, Sharon Sutton, Liliana Ashman.