The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane

Judith Roddy, Olwen Fouéré and Conor Madden. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy, Olwen Fouéré and Conor Madden. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy as Ophelia. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Judith Roddy as Ophelia. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Olwen Fouéré as Gertrude in 'The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Olwen Fouéré as Gertrude in 'The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

We all know Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s endlessly quotable, sullen procrastinator and philosopher; the prince sworn to avenge his father’s murder, but so tangled up in thought and soliloquies that he is unable. And we all know that his question is less straightforward than: a) to be, or b) not to. In fact, as Pan Pan’s absorbing, sometimes mind-blowing, and often infuriating deconstruction of the part, the play, and its perception makes clear, his dilemma is really one of multiple choice. Should Hamlet a) take swift revenge, b) first confirm his uncle’s wrong doing or c) pretend to be mad, gradually go mad, use performance to expose the hypocrisy of the court, stab somebody else during a flare of Oedipal passion, go to England, return, have a sword fight and join absolutely everyone in death?

There is no single Hamlet, neither in performance history, collective memory, nor, it seems, in the play itself. Instead Gavin Quinn’s production offers us multiplicity: Actors wander the stage in plain clothes with black armbands as we enter, pacing around an enormous floor mat in the design of the Danish flag. One of them holds a dog, a magnificent Great Dane, and already it is unclear whether we should a) decode it, b) laugh at a pun made flesh, or c) pet it. Finally, a woman takes centre stage, standing between two dustbins, and gives a short, persuasive and slightly timorous lecture on the instability of text, meaning and being in Hamlet. This she delivers while holding the dog’s leash and concludes by playing Greensleeves on a recorder.

Like so much of Gavin Quinn’s production, you can find this a) exhilarating, b) mystifying or c) troublingly free-floating. Yet there is method in’t. Gavin Quinn remains onstage throughout, dry and inscrutable, sitting with stage manager, Sarah Harris, the casting agent Ali Coffey and the academic Amanda Piesse, and the first act is ostensibly an effort to cast the role. There are three options: a) Derrick Devine, lean, brooding and introverted, b) Connor Madden, wild and whirling in speech and physical action, and c) Garrett Lombard, sonorous, self-possessed and self-regarding.

Staging the audition process is ingenious, and seems to crystallise the central idea of the production; each actor delivers a version of themselves, a version of the prince and an absorbing piece of the text. This process, and the workshop games around it, allows Quinn to ration out Shakespeare’s text in highlights and jumbled sequence, playing fast and loose with our familiarity and expectations. Andrew Bennett, Olwen Fouéré, Daniel Reardon and Judith Roddy each play precisely the roles you would expect, for instance, and some you would not. The time is similarly out of joint: the show begins with analysis and critique, continues with its development and concludes with a truncated presentation of the play. Between those stages, though, the audience must choose which actor will play the Dane, and, voting with our feet, the opening night audience chose Conor Madden, who won by one vote and became perhaps the first prince to be crowned by an open election.

Returning to a monochrome second act, in an enormous ruff which made it seem that his head had been served to us on a frilly platter, Madden was shadowed by his contestants and all clichés came with an unblinking seriousness: everyone holds the skull of someone we presumed they once knew. Elsinore materialised as a maze of dustbins, a Beckettian reference certainly, but a reminder for a play about mankind, the quintessence of dust. One consequence of outsourcing your interpretation to an onstage academic, though, is that you can minimise your own. There are great games played with the framing devices: the visiting players are school kids in uniform, replete with elastic beards and a boy player, and in place of the Murder of Gonzago, they perform Hamlet. Here, the play within the play is the play. Like the mirrors lining opposite ends of the playing space, everything is reflected back on itself.

Such self-awareness can tip easily into an off-putting knowingness. To Polonius’s long list of theatre genres, Daniel Reardon adds, with a sudden snap, “Postdramatic”. Whether or not the production endorses the term, it readily conforms to the chilly hallmarks of postdramatic theatre, and for all its intertextual digressions (recalling Richard Burton in the role in 1964, for instance) its contemporary asides and acres of commentary, there’s something curiously straight about the performance. The text is still most affecting when its delivery is least affected.

Continuing the bold, stimulating approach of depicting not just classics, but the purchase they have in our arts and our lives, Pan Pan add Hamlet to the list of decontextualised and recontextualised myths they have revisited: Oedipus, Macbeth, or Hansel and Gretel have all arrived to the stage dragging every psychological addition, cultural footnote and textual echo, like passengers hauling excess baggage. Ultimately, Pan Pan tells us nothing new about Hamlet, but the production maintains that this is impossible. As witty, over thought and indecisive as its central figure, it is a show overwhelmed by choice. “A problem you solve,” Piesse quoted from Muriel Spark; “A paradox you live with.” That is the fascination and obstinacy of Hamlet and so it goes for The Rehearsal Playing The Dane. It rivets while it frustrates, answering every question with a refusal to limit possibilities: option d), all of the above.

Peter Crawley is News Editor of Irish Theatre Magazine and Theatre Critic with the Irish Times. 



  • Review
  • Theatre

The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane by Pan Pan, from 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare

5-10 October 2010

Produced by Pan Pan at Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
In Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin

Director: Gavin Quinn

Designer: Aedín Cosgrove

Costume and Prop Design: Sarah Bacon

Dramaturg: Simon Doyle

With Garret Lombard, Conor Madden, Derrick Devine, Judith Roddy, Andrew Bennet, Olwen Fouéré, Daniel Reardon. 

Academic: Amanda Piesse

Stage Manager: Sarah Harris

Casting Director: Ali Coffey

The Great Dane: Toby.