How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hamlet?

Conor Madden in "The Rehearsal." Photo by Ros Kavanaugh

Hamlet is to theater what genocide is to geopolitics: the problem from Hell. What, exactly, are we supposed to make of this play (really three separate plays) and this character? He seems to be trying to get revenge for his father’s murder but at no point does he really do anything about it. Instead he gets mad at his mom, who’s otherwise a minor character, kills his girlfriend’s dad, which drives her to suicide, gets banished from the kingdom, and when he comes back, he’s gotten his poor old school chums murdered, takes breaks to talk to skulls, still doesn’t do anything to good old step-dad, and then dies in a duel with the guy who was supposed to be his brother-in-law. It’s downright Beckettian in that nothing happens a couple times over, while people talk and talk and talk about nothing.

It’s also, apparently, the greatest play ever.

For Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Hamlet, the character, forms half of a modern Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, along with Falstaff, who heads up the Bacchanalia. Hamlet isn’t just the sine qua non of modern humanity’s crisis of identity, he is the vehicle that delivered it to Western culture in the first place. For T.S. Eliot, Hamlet was only difficult to understand because the play itself was a complete artistic failure. He famously dubbed it “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of literature,” by which he meant that “more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art” (Eliot did love his chiasmus).

But where does that actually leave the theater artist who has to put on the show? A pretty shitty place, is the answer. With all that accumulated meaning and expectation, how is anyone ever supposed to actually perform the role of Hamlet?

This essential problem underlies Irish theater company Pan Pan‘s The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane, which comes to the NYU’s Skirball Center next week for a short run (through Oct. 13; tickets $25-$45) before heading to the Wexner Arts Center later this month. Featuring a lecturing academic, a play-within-a-play performed by high school students, and, yes, an actual Great Dane, the show focuses on the problem of how, exactly, you choose an actor to portray Hamlet, when the character seems too big for one person, too complex for one single portrayal. Rather than answer it, Pan Pan raises and explores the question. Here, the audience is given no less than three choices, and yes, the audience, in the end, is asked to choose.

Earlier this week, after a half-hour of failed international calls, I reached director and Pan Pan co-founder Gavin Quinn in Dublin and spoke with him about for a half an hour about the work.

Gavin Quinn. Photo by Aedin Cosgrove“The idea behind this was to look at, I suppose, the innate theatricality of Hamlet,” he explained early on in the conversation. “So it was to look at putting on a production of Hamlet, and looking at how, in a sense, Hamlet was already a little bubble of theatricality. And the second idea was, how people are never satisfied with how they play Hamlet.”

“So we developed that into a two-part show. The first part is about allowing the audience to think about Hamlet in the way that it’s an unusual play, in that there are three extant texts of Hamlet. And the second part is about how on earth are you going to choose who plays Hamlet?” Because, he added, “For whoever plays Hamlet, it’s generally a question of how much you fail, not how much you succeed.”

Founded in 1991 by Quinn and Aedin Cosgrove, who primarily serves as the company’s designer, Pan Pan has long been a stand-out in Irish theater, which–due in no small part to Ireland’s literary heritage–has been dominated by a literary theater focused on the text. Over the past twenty years, Pan Pan has presented a string of acclaimed shows that have toured internationally, including Oedipus Loves You, which played PS 122 a couple years ago.

“These things come in waves and ideas filter through,” he commented when I asked about the contemporary Irish theater scene, which seems to be breaking out in new directions with a variety of young devising companies. “[O]ver the last four or five years there was quite a number of young, independent groups who are, if you like, exploring different forms of theater. Whether anyone can be experimental anymore is an area for debate. In our case we would say we were actually making work for an audience to make an audience interested in theater. It’s a careful ordering of priorities, about bringing the audience with you. it’s not about just, say, preaching to the converted.”

Quinn mainly credits his and Cosgrove’s inspiration to John McCormick, the founder of the drama department at Trinity College, Dublin, where he and Cosgrove met. McCormick introduced them to the Continental tradition of Art or Director’s Theater, particularly the French tradition (Quinn mentioned the likes of Jean Vilar and Roger Blin), as well as movements in avant-garde art (Cosgrove studied art history as well as drama). By the time they left college, as Quinn explained it, “We just decided to start our own company because we just couldn’t see any possibility of working for anybody else. Or wanted to.”

Pan Pan works in diverse forms, from devised works to innovative presentations of texts. Their most recent production, which played at Dublin’s Project Arts Centre to acclaim just a few months ago, was an installation/sound-sculpture production of Samuel Beckett’s radio play, All That Fall. Oedipus Loves You mixed up Aeschylus and Freud in a garage rock blender. For The Rehearsal, the company cast an even wider net.

One part of the show is actually just a lecture on Hamlet by a noted academic (in New York, it will be given by former NYU President L. Jay Oliva). The company also casts a group of teenagers from the local community to perform the play-within-the-play: in this case, nine high school students from around the city will be performing two scenes from Hamlet, the grave digger scene and Ophelia’s funeral. And also, due to border controls, the Great Dane has to be recruited locally as well.

“There is a dog in the show, believe it or not,” Quinn explained after I asked, concerned I’d misread something. “A Great Dane. And it’s there for specific reasons, not just because it’s a pun, if you like, a visual pun of a Great Dane actually being in the performance. We observe the actors onstage, wandering around in rehearsal or existing in the space, whichever you way you want to look at it. We also observe the dog in the space, and how an animal moving, I suppose, un-self-consciously, is quite arresting to look at. And the dog then also accompanies the academic, who gives a lecture about Hamlet. So the dog is there as a kind of foil to the academic’s rather dry delivery of a lecture about Hamlet.”

“It’s that sort of yin and yang between it being a pro-intellectual production and anti-intellectual production. We have a dog on one hand, and the academic on the other.”

Just as the aleatoricism of a live animal introduced into the performance (“We let the dog sort of do its own thing in the beginning, you know, roam around. And then the academic just has to learn how to handle the dog. Because you know, a Great Dane can weigh 90 kilos, 14 stone…”) adds another layer for the audience to consider when looking at the problem of playing Hamlet, so too does the introduction of non-professional student actors.

“The professional actors, in a sense, watch themselves performing onstage,” Quinn told me. “And that’s for a number of reasons. Obviously, Hamlet refers to this new fashion of boys’ acting groups. He kind of makes jokes about, ‘Be careful, because when you grow up, you’ll be doing yourself out of a job.’ And also you could, of course, perceive or interpret Hamlet as being a quite adolescent play, and what the teenagers bring to the performance is something, perhaps, that a professional actor wouldn’t able to, or dare to.”

Age, in fact, is one of the trickiest parts about the role. Audiences are used to seeing actors at the height of their career tackle the role because it’s so challenging, even though they’re occasionally quite older than the character they’re playing, who’s supposed to be, roughly, of university age. Quinn agreed when I mentioned this, commenting: “In our case, we have three Hamlets–you choose which Hamlet you prefer. One Hamlet’s 27, the other is 24, and the other is 34.”

“Hamlet is strange because obviously he appears to be very young in places, when he’s hanging around with his mates from the university, but then is referred to by a specific age when he goes mad, by the gravedigger, so he can seem to be anywhere between his twenties and his early thirties. But often as not he’s played by an older actor.”

What’s presented in the final portion of the show is, essentially, a series of auditions by these three actors, with the first part of the show intended to contextualize for and focus the audience on the problem of performing the role. The audience is left to sort out for themselves which actor best embodies the character, which is tricky because, as Quinn himself notes, you sort of want to combine all three to get just what you want. Together, these disparate elements serve to help the audience see and perhaps understand Hamlet in a new way, not least to liberate it from the world of literary scholarship by breathing new life into it as a text for performance.

“The ideas seemed to gel together because I think they’re quite organic and quite embedded already in the Hamlet text,” Quinn told me. “And I think it’s all to do with the fact that Hamlet’s a sort of connoisseur of theater, you know, his love of the players and description of actors as having their ‘bad epitaph’ and ‘ill-report’ while they live. And his use of the players within the play, and the sense that who we play is more important than who we are, that goes all the way through, comes across in the way that we’ve presented the show.”

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