In a modern dress version of Hamlet, director Aoife Spillane-Hinks of Second Age Theatre Company answers Shakespeare’s famous “To be or not to be?” through what Ian McKellen, Leonardo diCaprio and Claire Danes seem to have established as the new fashion of making Shakespeare contemporary. The young Harvard graduate, who has already taken the Irish theatre scene by storm directing plays in the Gate Theatre, spoke to us about the trials and tribulations of achieving the perfect balance between staying faithful to the text and revamping the costumes in directing her very first Shakespeare play.
So how does a Harvard graduate and Connecticut native end up in Ireland working in theatre?
Well a couple of things led to it. First of all, I have Irish family down in Kerry so I went over to Ireland a fair bit with my mother for a couple of years, starting when I was about ten. Then when I was in Harvard I studied folklore mythology and I found myself studying Synge and doing a thesis on The Playboy of the Western World. So I came over for a couple of summers to do research for that and went to Irish college to get a grounding in the language and just got the sense that Ireland was a really good place to be an artist.
But I went to my first play when I was three and I’ve been doing theatre since I was four so the theatre came first. At the performing arts high school I went to the head of the department made me assistant director on all the shows and it made sense because I was always the actor saying “Why don’t we do it like this?”. So when I went to college I still did a little bit of acting but I had some incredible teachers in directing so I just moved more and more towards that.
Why did you decide to use modern dress in your current production of Hamlet?
Well I think it’s important to do plays as living texts and not as historical pieces or textbooks. It wasn’t a big conceptual move, it seemed natural because Hamlet is such a contemporary play.
It’s about really simple elements of human existence – war, love, power, familial struggles and coming of age, which are so obviously applicable today as much as they were then. And this is a play about a young guy who finds the world to be much more flawed and evil and corrupted than he thought it was and how he comes to terms with that and that’s something that all young people can relate to.
Some people might think using modern dress is easier than using costumes, is that true?
Absolutely not because Shakespeare’s plays are constantly dealing with rank and power so all the relationships between a king and his servant, his advisor, queen and prince have to be clear as they are in modern day. People with power dress in certain ways as opposed to those just in the rank below them. So someone like Hamlet is going to look very different from someone like Rosencrantz. So it actually demands a really specific knowledge of contemporary fashion for it to register. And to do it in front of teenagers, who are such keen critics of clothes, you’ve got to get it spot on. In some ways you can almost get away with it when it’s not today because people don’t know the exact references.
How do you think Shakespeare’s plays will be treated in the future? Will we be seeing Shakespeare in space next?
I think the primary thing is that they’ll remain important. They speak the same truth to us now as they did then which is a testimony to their power over the last several hundred years. But ya maybe they’ll do them in space and be part of some diplomatic envoy to Martians or something.
Second Age’s production of Hamlet will be showing at the Helix Theatre from February 24th – April 8th with tickets costing €10-25.
Words: Aine Pearl Pennello