‘A modern character in an antique play’

Gavin Quinn on Hamlet and Playing The Dane

AS SHAKESPEARE’S most complex, enigmatic, and ambiguous creation, Hamlet has inspired countless interpretations and commentaries, both within the field of theatre itself and in diverse areas of literature and scholarship.

As well as the myriad renditions of the play, Hamlet has been the subject matter of other influential plays such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Heiner Muller’s The Hamletmachine.

The play has been subjected to analysis by eminent poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and TS Eliot while the character of Hamlet played a critical role in Sigmund Freud’s explanation of the Oedipus complex and thus influenced modern psychology.

The broad spectrum of scholarly opinions on the play prompted Oscar Wilde to quip: “The critics of Hamlet, are they mad or only pretending to be so?”

Next week, Galway audiences can look forward to seeing a provocative and stimulating take on Hamlet from Pan Pan Theatre Company that reflects Hamlet’s role on stage, in culture, and in life - The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane.

Picking Hamlet

Voted Best Production of the Dublin Theatre Festival 2010 by The Irish Times critics and subsequent winner of Best Production and Best Design of 2010 at The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, The Rehearsal, Playing The Dane comes to The Black Box as part of a much-feted international and Irish tour. Highly innovative and visually breath-taking, the play is an audacious, irreverent, and often very funny, riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet that does not so much update or deconstruct the play as explode it.

...Playing the Dane features a choice of three Hamlets, and a cast which also features an academic and a Great Dane dog. The play opens with in a rehearsal room with three actors auditioning for the role of Hamlet before a director - a role taken by the play’s actual director Gavin Quinn - and at the end of the Act 1 the audience choose which actor gets the part.

There is also a brief lecture from the academic on the instability of text before Act II proceeds with various scenes from Hamlet that confront the many perceptions attached to the play and the character in a clever and frequently playful manner that is both thought-provoking and extremely funny.

Ahead of the play’s Galway visit, Pan Pan’s artistic director Gavin Quinn talked about the various ideas and themes that fed into the company’s interpretation of this iconic text.

“It’s a play about theatre and it’s full of inherent theatricality,” he began. “The first half focuses on these three actors auditioning for the role of Hamlet and the audience get to pick one. All three of the actors have got to play Hamlet during the various performances we’ve done so far, Conor Madden has been the one chosen most up to now. But it is a real vote each night, it’s not rigged in any way. It keeps the production fresh and alive because naturally the feel of the play changes depending on which actor is playing Hamlet.”

Quinn has been artistic director of Pan Pan since co-founding it with designer Aedin Cosgrove in 1991. Over the years the company has developed its own individual aesthetic, which has grown from exploring new forms, approaches, and experiments with time, space, music, and performance.

Pan Pan’s recent productions include a Mandarin-language adaptation of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in Beijing and an original musical take on a familiar myth in Oedipus Loves You. Its most recent production has been the critically acclaimed performance of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall.

Returning to ...Playing the Dane, Quinn explains why he wanted to include an academic’s contribution as part of the play.

Some might regard theatre-making and theatre-analysis as distinct activities, and some play-makers doubtless view pointy-headed intellectuals’ pronouncements on theatre with a measure of wariness.

“You have pro and anti intellectual positions but I feel the more knowledge you have about a play the better you can appreciate it,” Quinn asserts. “The academic responses to Hamlet are part of its history and different ways it’s perceived. Even the text of Hamlet is unreliable, there are three texts, the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio editions so which one should we rely on?. That’s the subject that the academic Amanda Piesse, from Trinity, talks about in her contribution to the show.”

Children and animals

Whatever about working with academics Quinn and Pan Pan also boldly defy WC Field’s famous warning that one should never work with children or animals. The Murder of Gonzago ‘play within a play’ scene is performed by local schoolchildren while the show memorably features the imposing presence of a Great Dane.

“We’ve been sourcing different Great Danes in each of the cities we’ve played in,” Quinn reveals. “The one we have now, here in Columbus Ohio, is called Sir Brody. The one we had in Dublin, funnily enough was called Toby which is almost like ‘to be’.”

Act II sees actors standing in trash-cans and other allusions to garbage. “The trash cans can be seen as a reference to Hamlet’s line in the play about man being ‘quintessence of dust’” Quinn explains “Also, ‘garbage’ itself is a Shakespearean word.”

Were there specific aspects of Hamlet that Quinn and his company chose to focus on in ...Playing the Dane?

“We’ve focused mainly on the relationship between the characters, and less on the political aspects of the play,” he replies. “You have the relationships between Hamlet, Laertes and Horatio, between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, between Ophelia, Gertrude, and Polonius, and so on. Hamlet has been described as the Mona Lisa of literature because it is so self-reflective. Hamlet himself is like a modern character in an antique play.”

...Playing the Dane has been met with rave reviews with many of them remarking on just how funny it often is – not something one often hears about Hamlet.

“We’re removed enough from it to be able to laugh at it,” Quinn observes. “There are a lot of comic possibilities in the staging the auditioning process. And the final scene where everyone is killed combines both humour and tragedy. The production is very entertaining but I think it offers something very different in its take on the play and it will make people want to go and read Hamlet again.”

The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane is at The Black Box on Wednesday November 30 and Thursday December 1 at 8pm. Tickets are €20/16 and are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie


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