Shakespeare, unusually, dominates the two main stages at this year’s packed Dublin theatre festival. Ruth Negga plays Hamlet in Yaël Farber’s exciting new production at the Gate, while at the Abbey Garry Hynes’ Galway-based Druid company continues its exploration of the histories. Even if I found more revelations in the former, the two shows are a buoyant reminder of Ireland’s long-term fascination with Shakespeare: the first ever female Hamlet was Fanny Furnival’s at Dublin’s Smock Alley in 1741.
The Irish-Ethiopian Negga’s Hamlet is a fascinating mix of male and female: a dark-suited, swift-spoken, ferociously intelligent figure who sees both through Elsinore’s corruption and his/her inability to counter it. Negga also has the priceless ability to savour the language. Her voice soars on “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” yet there is self-castigation at her capacity to unpack her heart with words.
But it is the intense relationship between Negga’s Hamlet and Aoife Duffin’s Ophelia that lies at the heart of this production. Never before have I seen an Ophelia so grief-stricken at Hamlet’s spiritual turmoil and, in the scene where she is decisively spurned, Duffin cradles her former lover in her arms in a gesture of helpless affection.
Everything about this production feels freshly imagined. If Denmark’s a prison, it is one that in Susan Hilferty’s design is symbolised by an enclosed set made up of 12 doors that suggests a mix of Kafka’s The Trial and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (which later plays in the festival). Farber also brings out the death-fixated nature of the play, with Ophelia staring early on at an open grave and with the action haunted by three bowler-hatted, Beckettian figures who appear as the travelling players and rustic sextons.
But, if Farber’s production has echoes of a funeral feast, it makes adventurous use of the Gate’s auditorium. During the play scene, I was seated just behind Owen Roe’s Claudius, whose shaking right leg indicated his quivering anxiety. However, what I shall finally remember from this production is the overwhelming sense of loss that binds Negga’s Hamlet and Duffin’s Ophelia – something, I suspect, that could be fully realised only when you have a female prince.
If an open grave is a feature of Farber’s Hamlet, it is central to Hynes’ Richard III. While Aaron Monaghan’s Gloucester heaves himself out of one at the start, his victims are despatched into the self-same pit by a stun-gun blow to the head from Marty Rea’s brutally efficient Catesby. In the interim, Monaghan gives us a richly ironic Richard who delights in assuming a mask of affability while twirling his right-hand crutch with demonic glee.
It is a fine performance and Monaghan makes good use of his relative lack of inches as he strives to reach the crown placed on top of a skull in an overhanging cabinet. Hynes’ production doesn’t boast the same gender fluidity as her earlier histories, which had a female Henry V, and there is a perverse climax implying that the future Tudor monarch will turn into another Richard III. But this is still an accomplished production, with a strikingly assured Queen Elizabeth from Jane Brennan, and one that, like the Hamlet, is spoken with a clarity that might put many British companies to shame.
• The Dublin Theatre festival runs until 14 October. Michael Billington’s trip was supported by Tourism Ireland.