Second Age; illuminating Hamlet’s ambiguities

SECOND AGE Theatre Company comes to Galway next month with its new staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Alan Stanford.

Hamlet is perhaps the most influential, most powerful, and most intriguing of all tragedies in the English language. Its dramatic structure proved groundbreaking at the time of writing, as the drama focused on character rather than action. It is this depth of characterisation that allows Hamlet to be analysed, interpreted, and reinvented in seemingly infinite ways.

Over a pre-rehearsal phone call, Second Age’s Alan Stanford shared his thoughts on the play, beginning by recalling some of the Hamlets that have made a strong impression on him throughout his long career to date.

“There was the David Warner Hamlet which I saw when I was very young and was an early seminal experience, it was very much based on the modernist attitude towards the play as defined by Jan Kott in his book Shakespeare Our Contemporary,” says Stanford.

“There was Grigori Kozintsev’s Russian film version which was probably one of the finest Hamlets ever. I saw Christopher Plummer do Hamlet on television at Elsinore when I was very young. I don’t think it was particularly brilliant but it had a seminal effect.

“I’ve seen, directed, or acted in nearly all the Hamlets done here over the last 40 years. Stephen Brennan who plays Polonius in this production did a wonderful Hamlet for the Abbey directed by Michael Bogdanov. This is my third time to direct it. It’s one of those plays that if you have any interest in Shakespeare you end up doing a lot.”

Moving on to this new Second Age staging, Stanford highlights how he is approaching the play’s key issues.

“There are an awful lot of preconceived and inaccurate notions about Hamlet so every time you come to it you attempt to overturn some of those and clarify some of the play’s many ambiguities,” he notes. “So for instance in discussions with Garret Keogh, who plays Claudius, we talked a lot about the politics of the play because Claudius is not a warrior but a politician.

“Shakespeare establishes that very early on, by the fact that where Old Hamlet - who Claudius has murdered - would have gone out and fought the King of Norway, Claudius pulls a political stroke and thereby prevents a border encroachment on Denmark. So Shakespeare thereby brilliantly illustrates the art of the cute hoor politician.

“Then you have the ambiguity of Hamlet himself; it’s a play about which people say ‘O Hamlet can’t do anything because he’s too intelligent, or too weak, or too cowardly, or whatever.’ But that’s a completely erroneous interpretation. There are very clear and determined reasons for why he does everything that he does.

“It’s a play that has strong religious overtones in terms of the period in which it was written, which was at the end of the Elizabethan and beginning of the Jacobean era. You also have a situation where Gertrude marries her husband’s brother and that was viewed as a sin.

“It would be considered incestuous on the basis of man and wife have become one flesh, so that if you marry your husband’s brother you’re effectively marrying your own brother. That happened 70 or 80 years before the play was written because Henry VIII tried to get a divorce from Catherine of Aragon for that very reason, so the play was quite political even in that sense. So you’re picking at all those little pieces of knowledge and trying to find the dramatic content within them.”

The role of Hamlet is here taken by Marty Rea and Stanford describes the qualities he brings to the part.

“Marty has unbelievable energy, he has incredible intelligence and articulacy,” he says. “He’s very good at ‘joined-up thinking’; he can put ideas and concepts together. Hamlet is, without question, one of the most intelligent characters in Shakespeare.

“He is a philosopher, he’s not just a student. He has tremendous rational thinking. Shakespeare had a fundamental understanding of psychology 400 years before Freud invented it. That’s what you’re dealing with when you’re casting Hamlet, a remarkable intelligence, and you want an actor who has the capacity to operate within that framework which Marty does.”

The superb cast also includes Stephen Brennan (Polonius ), Barbara Brennan (Gertrude ), John Olohan (Player King ), and Maeve Fitzgerald (Ophelia ). “We have a dream cast which makes it easier to play because you’ve got tremendously intelligent acting going on,” Stanford observes.

Stanford has given the play an 1830’s setting - “I wanted to do it in a period when it was acceptable to have things like swords,” he explains, “and the production has a playing time of about two and a half hours.”

In conclusion, Stanford declares that Hamlet is “one of the most famous and most quoted and least understood plays, but it also is one of the most entertaining, one of the funniest, one of the saddest, one of the most tragic. It’s a play that has absolutely everything in it. For anyone coming to see the production I guarantee that we will tell the story very well.”

Hamlet is at the Town Hall from Tuesday February 9 to Saturday 13, inclusive at 8pm nightly. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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