Review: HAMLET at UCD Dramsoc

Madness, deception and clowns - Luke Duffy takes a look at a refreshing spin on Shakespeare’s greatest play

Every year, UCD Dramsoc puts on the Leaving Certificate show and opens its doors to secondary school students and theatre-goers from all over the country. In accordance with this year’s Leaving Certificate exam, Dramsoc put on Hamlet. Directed by former Dramsoc member Tzarini Meyler, this is William Shakespeare’s longest and perhaps greatest play. The play follows a young prince Hamlet and his mission for revenge, after an encounter with his father’s ghost who accuses his own brother - now married to the prince’s mother - of his murder. Prince Hamlet’s plot for vengeance involves feigned madness, but the question remains as to how much of his madness is truly an act, as the stability of the Danish monarchy and the prince’s relationships with other people start to crumble around him.

Hamlet is a play that covers a lot of ground thematically, so it is important to ensure that it is done right. This production had a particular focus on the themes of deception and trickery because of the decision to set it in a circus. Meyler writes in her director’s note on the programme that these themes are “timeless”, and the main reason for this choice of setting was to, in a sense, keep the play alive and fresh; to keep young people interested in Shakespeare by producing it in a way that is new to much of the audience. The circus setting also serves to leave the audience to “question what lies beneath the bright colours and flashing lights”, in Meyler’s own words. It’s a very fresh take indeed, and it’s one that works wonders.

This production of Hamlet had a lot going for it, and it is clear from the jump that the actors put a lot of work into truly becoming their characters. Kate Lynch as Ophelia was one of the standouts, for a number of reasons. She maintained excellent chemistry with every character she interacted with - the nunnery scene between Ophelia and Hamlet is especially haunting. Her descent into madness after this scene is increasingly tragic to watch, and when she finally drowns in a water tank, it is beautiful, captivating and devastating all at once.

Ryan Haran has studied the character of Hamlet in what you can tell is the most granular detail

Another outstanding performance of the show was of course Ryan Haran as Hamlet, who - in no uncertain terms - gave the performance of a lifetime. From his encounter with the ghost of his father, Haran executes the role flawlessly, scene after scene after scene. He is able to effortlessly capture the very specific emotions in all of his soliloquies, and this builds up to create a layered and complex character that dominates the play in a way I have never seen before. It is also worth noting that in terms of costume, Hamlet himself enters this play as one of the only characters who does not obviously belong in the circus. This works to Haran’s advantage, as he is able to visually reflect his descent into madness through the application of clown makeup that becomes more and more deranged as the mad prince reaches the peak of his insanity. Hamlet is a play where the prince’s madness may or not be feigned, and this comes across beautifully - Haran is an incredibly convincing Hamlet through every stage of his derangement. Shortly after the murder of Polonius, he has a moment where he paints clown makeup on himself, cackling as he has finally gone mad for real. He remains fascinating and endlessly compelling to watch for all three hours and twenty minutes of the play’s runtime. If I had to sum up this show’s Hamlet in one word, that word is “powerhouse” - Ryan Haran has studied the character of Hamlet in what you can tell is the most granular detail, and it made for what is quite possibly the strongest performance I have seen in any play in a very long time.

Other performances of note included Morgan Buckley in his chilling and unsettling portrayal of the dead King Hamlet (whose entry through the audience was a very immersive touch), as well as Lorcan Kelly as Laertes, who quickly establishes a playful relationship with his sister Ophelia, and a compelling and palpable fury in his interactions with Hamlet after she meets her demise. Max K. Feenan’s Polonius also deserves praise - he provides some comic relief for much of the first half, and the events of the play rapidly become darker once he is killed at Hamlet’s hands. 

Even the stage hands are in clown makeup so as not to break from the environment of the play

The costumes and props department clearly put a lot of work into this production - almost every character is assigned a circus role in accordance with what they bring to the play. Ophelia - a tightrope walker, as she constantly walks the line between life and death - enters with a gorgeous headpiece made of stars that somehow stays on her head as she cartwheels onstage and is picked up and spun around by Laertes. Hamlet’s digression into insanity is marked not only by his clown makeup, but by the destruction of his entire outfit - notably a burned leather jacket with “FOOL” written on the back. It’s reflective of the destruction of the Danish monarchy, and it meshes beautifully with the circus theme. The attention to detail is impeccable as even the stage hands are in clown makeup so as not to break from the environment of the play. Other favourites included Gertrude’s (Nessa Moloumby) sparkly blue bodysuit and ruffled boa, and Praise Titus as the androgynous Horatio, dressed in a stunning three-piece suit complete with coattails.

The sound design for this show was wonderful, as was the lighting - the use of flashing lights with every strike as Hamlet beats Polonius to death with a juggling club made that scene genuinely frightening. The music used in several key scenes (particularly Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing by Chris Isaak as Hamlet puts on his clown face) also worked well in terms of building a cohesive aesthetic and world for the play to exist in.

Tzarini Meyler’s Hamlet is a show that I have found very hard to criticise. I would have appreciated if more had been done design-wise with the balconies in Astra HalI, from which Horatio speaks to the dead king in the opening scene. The balconies are not used again for the remainder of the play, and the viewer is very quickly drawn in by the following scene. I watched the play on both Wednesday and Friday night because I wanted to make sure I took everything in - the circus as a choice of setting is genius, and it makes more sense the more you think about it. Hamlet is set in a world where trickery and deception lie at every corner, but do not be mistaken - Dramsoc have staged a truly excellent show, and the entire cast and crew should be extremely proud of themselves.