The house-symbol is one of the most famous pieces of dream analysis. Its appearance in the sleeping mind of Carl Jung pre-empted a division between his own academic theories and those of Sigmund Freud, with Jung interpreting his own multi-storeyed dream world dwelling as a representation of his multi-storeyed psyche.
Yaël Farber’s Hamlet is staged in a roofless labyrinth of a house, centred on one room lined entirely with doorways (14, if I can count correctly) that, when opened, reveal another wall of doorways that, if opened, would probably reveal another wall of doorways. Designed by Susan Hilferty, the walls are coated in oily black paint like a pooling petrol spill echoed in the shapes of swirling incense smoke. Unlike Jung’s vertically-segmented psyche, this house is a horizontal map of a mind, one slick with greasy grief where the openings of neural pathways snap rapidly open then rapidly shut.
Necessarily then, this is an extremely Hamlet-centric Hamlet. Which might sound odd, given that all productions of this play, named after its protagonist, are to an extent Hamlet-centric. But they’re also often not, because zooming in on one of the other characters in order to shift the weight of the plot is an obvious way of reinterpreting the endlessly performed work. Farber’s Hamlet has the audience inside the melancholic headspace of the Prince of Denmark, so that the other characters momentarily bob up as place-markers in the sea of his grief before floating out of sight again.
Ruth Negga’s Hamlet arrives back in Elsinor in a similar state to Andrew Scott’s watery-eyed prince in Robert Icke’s production. Negga’s a collapsed puppet, a tiny crumbled figure dissolving in sorrow. Her portrayal is of a tender Hamlet, one that giddily kisses Ophelia, lacing his fingers through hers. What’s brilliant about this is how, by starting out visibly broken, Hamlet’s descent into madness manifests itself almost in reverse: a transition from softness to rigidity. Faced with the people he loves gradually disappearing, the initial weeping hardens into an upright, swaggering machismo and physical aggressiveness towards his mother and Ophelia. The more he unspools internally, the harder the outside becomes.
The other characters have their own points of interest. Claudius (Owen Roe), his SS-style uniform unbuttoned, unravels in guilt during his confession to a priest before buttoning up and shutting up with terrifying briskness. Gertrude (Fiona Bell), who first appears wearing Melania Trump’s inauguration outfit, is a tantalizingly un-maternal version of Hamlet’s mother, making a few softly-spoken words at the end of the closet scene particularly notable.
And in general, the lighter comedic elements are absent. The players, who double as gravemakers, are bowler-hatted Godot men whose presence emphasises the surrealistic, memory-filled setting. But most importantly, Polonius (Nick Dunning) isn’t played as a buffoon. Instead, his plasticky creepiness matches Claudius’s, which helps explain the disintegration of Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) who is, right from the start, surrounded by violent, destructive men and a complete absence of women, caring or otherwise. Her self-destruction comes as the result of never having had control over things happening to or around her.
But the truth is that the Hamletness of this production means the scenes without Hamlet become less involving. Once you’re inside his head you want to stay there, perhaps because grief is always so intoxicating, and so good at preventing a person from fully relating to the others around them. I want Hamlet back on stage so I can bathe in being Hamlet even though Hamlet, by this point, is behaving like a bit of a dick.
He’s also behaving like someone moving through motions with a horrid inevitability to them. Without Horatio’s ‘Goodnight sweet prince’ speech, and no Fortinbras, the ending is even sadder than normal. But just as noticeable is the way the doors, all of them, resist Hamlet’s late order for them to close. Flung open, they remain that way, turning the blackened structure into a fragile, bombed-out ruin that, by now, is unfixable.
Hamlet is on until 27 October 2018 at the Gate Theatre, Dublin. Click here for more details.