Half-baked, half-hearted, and full of poor decisions.
Icarus Theatre Company aim to inject earthy physicality into Shakespeare’s works – a worthy aim, to be sure, but perhaps more necessary when Olivier and his acolytes literally pranced through his plays in the mid-twentieth century. These days, we’re used to seeing mud and sweat, whether in the Hollow Crown or Kenneth’s Brannagh’s staging of Macbeth at a deconsecrated church in Manchester. So, the promise to stage Hamlet “for the Game of Thrones generation” doesn’t seem quite so daring.
Still, they’re working with some of the finest source material in western literature, which is a good place to start. A first glance at the set of simple faux-stonework decorated with large Danish flags also boded well. But on closer inspection, I’m fairly certain that those pop-up banners are fairly cheap to pick up from most printers. Game of Thrones has its problems – not least when it comes to sexual violence – but it spares little expense to realise its story of cut-throat power politics. By contrast, this production soon reveals itself as profoundly cheap, in a way that undermines everything it tries to accomplish.
I’ll return to the set later, as its not the only way in which the production’s vaulting ambitions are knobbled by shoddy execution or obvious penny pinching. One innovation – a ‘Greek chorus’ of actors delivering internal monlogues in conversation with characters – is ruined by the fact that the chorus includes any cast members who aren’t already playing a character in the scene. Given that most of the company are playing two or three parts already, this potentially interesting device becomes simply confusing.
That wasn’t the only questionable decision by the creative team. Other choices – touching on everything from the text to blocking – ranged from bemusing to downright bewildering. I can see how somebody thought it would be a good idea to stage a ritual knife-fight at the play’s opening – it sets a certain Game of Thrones theme, even if it’s just dumped into the play without either context or import. But quite why Icarus chose to take Hamlet’s soliloques out of order and context, or indeed to dramatically shorten them, I never will understand.
Equally unfathomable are certain blocking decisions. Why does the ghost of king hamlet, having lured his son away to speak in private, then lounge on a stone bench like Top Cat before retelling the story of his murder? Why, in the ‘closet scene’, does Polonius stand so far away from the action and then dash out, meaning Hamlet quite clearly sees him before running him through? (It lends Hamlet’s next question – “is it the king?” – a surreal air). Why did the final scene descend into chaos, with all actors on stage beating seven bells out of each other for no apparent reason? And why did Ophelia, in what’s normally a heartbreaking scene, thunder around the stage like a dervish, her breathlessly delivered lines drowned out by the echoes of her stamping feet? these are decisions that only Director Max Lewendel can answer, but they left the Bord Gáis Theatre audience alternately confused and amused.
Perhaps this confusion spread to the cast as well, or perhaps most of them were simply trying to avoid an injury on the split level maze on stage. Either would explain the curious disengagement of supposedly seasoned actors, who rattled through their lines as though they were phonetically learned streams of gibberish. Hamlet is a difficult play to perform, to be sure, but most intelligent people can find an emotional connection with the text that the cast seemed to lack. I’ve rarely seen an actor – let along an entire company – seem quire so unmoved by such powerful words.
It’s interesting to ponder whether an insistence on relentless action is to blame for the production’s weird lack of emotional intensity. Alas, that proves to be the only aspect of this insipid, borderline incompetent production worth pondering for more than a few moments.