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Review: In ‘Hamlet,’ Ruth Negga Rules as a Player Prince

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The prince is, on first impression, a small person. The title character in the Gate Theater of Dublin’s thrilling production of “Hamlet,” which opened on Monday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn under the inspired direction of Yaël Farber, initially registers as a fine figurine of a man, delicate of frame and feature.

Do not underestimate him. There is great stature in his sorrow and his rage. He can think circles around any hulking politician, and he moves as fast he thinks. You just know that he is always the smartest person in any room he occupies. And that this is both his blessing and his curse.

Hamlet is portrayed by the Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga, and the double-sidedness of this most complex of Shakespeare’s heroes has rarely been better served. Negga, best known to American audiences for her Oscar-nominated role in the 2016 film “Loving,” has created a portrait of the theater’s most endlessly analyzed prince that is drawn in lines of lightning.

Though the text places his age around 30, this Hamlet seems both younger and wiser than such a number would indicate. He has the outraged, childlike astonishment of someone surprised by hard grief for the first time in his life — and a concomitant disgust for the corrupt adult world that has shaped his existence.

Yet there is a part of him that sees beyond his immediate feelings and sneers at them. Hamlet can’t help reveling in the sheer, artful nimbleness of his mind, nor can anyone who sees Negga’s remarkable performance in this fast, fluid production. At the same time, he aches with an awareness of how small such displays of intellect are in terms of the really big picture, the one dominated by the shadow of death.

I started to write that the fact that this man is played by a woman is irrelevant. But there is one sense in which the basic disparity between this actress and this role feeds the quickening sensibility that infuses every aspect of Farber’s interpretation, which cannily condenses and rearranges the text for speed and focus.

For what is conveyed here with glittering incisiveness is the work’s sense of life as theater, in which playing roles expands and constricts the possibilities in being human. In this world, Negga’s Hamlet rules as the Player Prince.

That worldview is achieved without the winking, meta-theatrical touches that have become so familiar in contemporary Shakespeare. Farber — the South African-born creator of viscerally stirring reimaginings of classics like “Miss Julie” and “The Crucible” — understands that there is no need to add layers of directorial self-consciousness when your main character is the ultimate self-conscious auteur.

Hamlet, you may recall, is the guy who — after he discovers his dad has been murdered by his uncle (and new stepfather) — decides to put on “an antic disposition,” the better to enact revenge under the cloak of assumed madness. He stages a whole play to “catch the conscience of the king.”

He is never more relaxed than in the company of a traveling troupe of actors. More than with his girlfriend, Ophelia (Aoife Duffin) or best friend, Horatio (Mark Huberman); certainly more than with any member of his family, Hamlet feels close spiritual kinship with these journeyman thespians. They, at least, know they’re playing parts.

Accordingly — as impeccably realized by Susan Hilferty (set and costumes) John Torres (lighting) and Tom Lane (music and sound) — the palace of Elsinore is not presented as the futuristic surveillance state so common to recent productions. Instead, its look is part fairy-tale playhouse (cascading curtains play a spectacularly evocative role), part Magritte-tinged surrealism (death assumes the implicit form of three vacant-eyed men in bowler hats, pulling corpses on gurneys).

An awareness of an audience is also essential to this mise-en-scène. Hamlet’s first soliloquy is spoken to a confidante, Ophelia, whom at that point he feels he can trust. The wicked Claudius (Owen Roe, fabulous as a manipulative Fascist for the ages) delivers his aborted prayer of repentance not to an unseen God but to a very visible priest, whom the King winds up manhandling.

When Hamlet stages his “mousetrap” play — in which performers replicate the murder of his father — the members of the court take their seats in an empty aisle in the audience. That means that all of us, not just Hamlet, are craning our necks to clock the reactions of Claudius and his queen, Gertrude (Fiona Bell).

Negga’s Hamlet is never happier than when he’s masterminding such snares of illusions. That is, until he remembers why he’s doing what he’s doing to begin with. And beneath it all, always, lurks the awareness of death. Negga’s quicksilver performance keeps recalibrating all these levels of reaction.

Too often, when a Hamlet is this good, I’m impatient whenever he’s not onstage. Not so this time. Everyone else — and I mean everyone, including the thunderous ghost of Hamlet’s father (Steve Hartland); a Polonius who postures like a matinee idol manqué (Nick Dunning); and his fire-breathing son, Laertes (Gavin Drea) — is filled with surprises and insights. Their relationships are defined in startling physical details, especially in how they touch one another. (Note the repeated coercive wrist grip in different contexts.)

As incarnated by Duffin (who similarly exposed all nerves in the ravishing monologue play “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing”), Ophelia is a young woman whose nascent sexual awakening makes her dangerously vulnerable to shame. Her relationship with Hamlet is painfully credible here, rendered in the heartbreaking terms of young lovers who feel they have only each other to stand against the world — and then realize they don’t have even that.

Bell’s Gertrude is a hard pragmatist when we first meet her, seemingly able to live comfortably with her Faustian bargain for power. (Is it a coincidence that her dress for Claudius’s triumphal inaugural scene brings to mind Melania Trump?) But in the famous encounter in Gertrude’s bedroom, when Hamlet visits her after the play-within-the-play, something remarkable happens.

Gertrude and Hamlet, who have been playing defensive roles with each other since we first met them, suddenly find themselves alone face to face, and their masks fall. For just a few beautiful, lacerating moments, they are the blood-bound mother and son, nurturer and child, that on some level they have always been. And that kind of emotional honesty forces them to see clearly the damage they have done in choosing to play unnatural parts.

Such occasions — and there is a generous multitude of them here — gloriously confirm Hamlet’s statement that the role of acting is to hold “the mirror up to Nature.” In this “Hamlet,” that mirror gleams and dazzles.

Hamlet

Tickets Through March 8 at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn; 718-254-8779, stannswarehouse.org. Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes.

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Editorial

Here Lies the Skull of Pliny the Elder, Maybe

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In 2017, after Mr. Cionci chronicled the mystery in the Turin-based daily La Stampa, Project Pliny was launched. DNA sequencing and an analysis of cranial shape and sutures suggested that the skull fit the Elder’s general profile. Still, Luciano Fattore, an anthropologist and occasional lecturer at University of Naples “L’Orientale,” warned that the older the individual, the less reliable the age range. “On average, however, the data is compatible with the possibility that the skull was Pliny’s,” he said. “This is a process of clues, with very strong evidences.”

Mr. Cionci’s team was buoyed when examination of isotopes in the tooth enamel in the jawbone revealed that the owner could have grown up in Northern Italy, Pliny’s birthplace. Then came the deflating news that the jaw likely came from a man of North African ancestry who had died in his thirties.

Mr. Cionci speculates that Matrone played mix-and-match with the bones, borrowing the jaw from a skeleton of a slave who lived on Pliny’s estate and served as his bodyguard. A footnote in “The Shadow of Vesuvius” refers to an ancient rumor that Pliny was killed by a slave “whom he urged to hasten his death in the agonizing heat.” Mr. Cionci’s hypothesis raises the tantalizing possibility the unmatched set of bones is an amalgam of murderer and murdered.

Unsurprisingly, some prominent scholars are deeply skeptical of Project Pliny’s conclusions. Dr. Dunn, who has closely followed the developments, wondered why, if Pliny the Elder’s body had been found in a sleeping posture, his body had not been entombed.

“If this is the skull of Pliny the Elder, I’d be absolutely flabbergasted,” she said. “The science does not appear to have established that connection, and we cannot know for certain that the skull was found as described or rule out the possibility that it was positioned opportunistically to lend credence to the theory that it was his. It is a pity we can’t recreate the moment of its discovery.”

She quoted an idiom that Pliny coined in a recipe for a kind of antidote to poison: addito salis grano — with a grain of salt. “We’ve appropriated the phrase to mean read or take with caution,” she said.

In an email, Francesco Sirano, director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, and who was not involved in Project Pliny, praised the effort for “bringing back within a solid scientific basis a debate closed too hastily” in the early 1900s. “The group of researchers is trying to derive the maximum of the results from the few archaeological and anthropological remains, also thanks to the help of new technologies.”

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Editorial

Violin Lessons During the Coronavirus Outbreak. A Pupil’s Progress.

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He realized how serious the situation was at the end of January when the family’s Lunar New Year vacation to Chongqing, a city in the middle of China, was canceled. Kevin had been looking forward to playing his violin loudly outside every day. Instead, he had stayed home, watched news reports about the virus, and became nervous.

Kevin said the nerves passed quickly. His mother, who works at a hospital in Chengdu in its supplies department, told him as long as everyone’s careful, they won’t catch the virus.

Two weeks into the boot camp with Ms. Kreston, he is feeling much better, but longs for the outdoors. He is able to go into his apartment’s yard to play basketball, but he misses swimming and playing water polo and board games with friends.

“I feel bored!” he said while jumping from foot to foot as if filled with energy to burn.

Although he is “still very worried about Wuhan,” Kevin said is not so concerned about his own city. He doesn’t even worry about his mother, who has spent a lot of time recently buying masks and protective clothes for the hospital. “We’re often joking she’s the most dangerous person in our home and we should keep her in the bathroom,” he joked.

Kevin’s improved mood has a lot to do with the daily violin lessons with Ms. Kreston, he said. The two of them don’t just share videos back and forth, but also emoji messages about his violin playing.

Kevin now practices four hours every day, and he said his technique has improved and his sound has become more beautiful. Ms. Kreston said she gave Kevin the Lalo concerto because it was passionate at points and sad at others. Kevin could use it to tap into his feelings, even complicated ones about death and loss.

“The virus is terrible,” Kevin said, “but music gives us the confidence to overcome.”

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Editorial

A. E. Hotchner, Writer and Friend of the Famous, Dies at 102

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It was on such an assignment that he met Hemingway in Havana in 1948. Thus began a long friendship, recounted in “Papa Hemingway,” that included travels on both sides of the Atlantic, drinking adventures, manly and familial bonding and, finally, bearing witness to Hemingway’s psychological decline. Hemingway encouraged his younger friend to write and gave his approval to Mr. Hotchner’s adaptations of his works for television and the stage.

One production was a television play adapted from Hemingway’s story “The Battler,” about a young man — the Hemingway alter ego Nick Adams — who has been thrown off a freight train and encounters a punch-addled former boxer and his caretaker at a campfire in the woods. The boxer’s part had been intended for James Dean, but Dean was killed in a car crash on Sept. 30, 1955, shortly before rehearsals, and the role went to a young actor named Paul Newman.

“The Battler” was broadcast live on Oct. 18, and it led to Mr. Newman’s breakthrough role as Rocky Graziano in the 1956 movie “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

It also led to a friendship of more than a half-century, which was cemented in the late 1950s, when Mr. Newman bought a house, not far from Long Island Sound, in Westport, where Mr. Hotchner had lived since 1953.

“We owned a series of dilapidated boats we’d take out on the water to go fishing and drink beer and have all sorts of adventures,” Mr. Hotchner told the London newspaper The Daily Mirror after Newman’s death in September 2008. “We drank a lot of beer and so never actually caught many fish.”

Mr. Newman had made it a holiday ritual to make batches of homemade salad dressing in his barn, pour it into wine bottles and drive around his neighborhood giving them away as Christmas gifts. Just before Christmas 1980, Mr. Newman was stirring up an enormous batch, with a canoe paddle, when he invited Mr. Hotchner to join him. Out of their small adventure came the idea for Newman’s Own.

Founded in 1982, the company has given away hundreds of millions of dollars through its charitable arms.

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