Review: Provocative production of ‘Hamlet’ gives noir feel to the classic text

The ensemble of "Hamlet," with Ruth Negga in the green chair. (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

Considering that Shakespeare’s plays were originally presented with men in the female roles, why shouldn’t women today get to take on the male roles?

Only someone with little familiarity with Shakespeare would express surprise at a woman playing Hamlet. The turn-of-the-century stage superstar Sarah Bernhardt famously played the role – and some film footage of her performance still survives. More recently, director Phyllida Lloyd has presented all-female productions of Shakespeare plays in New York. And barely a year ago, Glenda Jackson played King Lear on Broadway.

Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga, who received an Oscar nomination for the 2016 film “Loving,” is currently portraying Hamlet in a provocative new production staged by South African director-playwright Yaël Farber, which originated at Dublin’s Gate Theatre and is now playing a limited, apparently sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. While Farber’s directorial choices will likely incite mixed reactions, there is no denying that Negga is giving a captivating performance.

Running just over three hours and fifteen minutes, Farber’s “Hamlet” preserves more of the text than many other productions do. But like a collage artist, Farber moves around various scenes and other selections, including Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech. But even more jarring, Farber inserts a passage from the play’s “First Folio” edition which has major implications for one particular character. 

With a hazy lighting design, burning incense, ominous underscoring and an overwhelmingly black visual design (including towering black doors and funereal black costumes), this “Hamlet” initially resembles a 1940s film noir, full of mystery and suspense. But eventually one reaches the point where Farber’s obtrusive, even bewildering excesses (culminating a final scene where the dead characters randomly show up, not unlike the finale of “Les Miz”) become too much to bear. 

But enough of all that. Let’s talk about Negga, whose fresh and nimble take on Hamlet brings to mind an acutely sensitive young boy, who begins in a state of agonizing grief and ventures into Peter Pan-like jollity. She is physically and vocally distinct from the rest of the cast, which makes sense for Hamlet – and makes one wonder why Hamlet is not played by a woman more often.

Wearing a military coat, Owen Roe’s Claudius is a smug, smirking and self-satisfied dictator. Fiona Bell is an unusually raw and wary Gertrude who yells at Hamlet as if he were a misbehaving schoolboy. Aoife Duffin might have been an effective Ophelia were she not weighed down by having to get drenched in pouring water and, during her “mad scene”, bare her body and make out with multiple people.

3 stars

“Hamlet” runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 8. 45 Water Street, Brooklyn, stannswarehouse.org.

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