Helix, Dublin

To avenge or not to avenge? That is the question most Leaving Cert students will be asked to consider when it comes to the melancholy Prince of Denmark; a quandary that bothers no one more than Hamlet himself. He applies himself to the murder of his uncle, the usurper of his father, with the fitful discipline of many a student: first with immense ferocity, then by fretfully playing for time, alternately spurred and distracted until it cannot be put off any longer.

This new production from Second Age, five years since its last Hamlet, struggles similarly between a sense of duty and the need to inspire, largely settling for a clear rendition of an exam text rather than supplying the imaginative jolt of a fresh approach. Alan Stanford’s production is sparing, brisk and efficient, letting the text do most of the work. Its strongest performances, though, show the rewards of rolling up your sleeves and wringing Shakespeare for new meaning.

This is masterfully apparent in Hamlet’s first soliloquy, expectedly heavy with depression and exposition, but one that Marty Rea’s fascinating performance enlivens with slalom shifts of emotion and the roiling associations of a distressed mind. Rea’s Hamletcontinues as a performance within a performance, a character who dons madness as a disguise but disappears unsettlingly into the role. In the company of the Players, he becomes performer, writer and, most wittily, director of The Mousetrap. Here a brooding streak of misery, there a loose-limbed, subversive maniac, Rea’s Hamletfits right in.

The only person more at ease on the stage is Stephen Brennan as Polonius, alive to every undiscovered fold of comedy in the character. Stealing any scene that isn’t nailed down, his flexibility and energy can err on the hammy side, but it comes from wry attention to the text – and the happy consequence is that it sharpens our own. In every nook and cranny of Elsinore there is another discovery.

If only the rest of the production showed a similarly limber consideration. Without a supporting sense of context, Léonore McDonagh’s Regency costumes seem an arbitrary aesthetic, a rough signpost towards “the past”. The ghost, a heavy-breathing distorted sound effect, sounds unnervingly like Darth Vader (“I am thy father’s spirit!”), but, by comparison, its force makes Garrett Keogh’s restrained Claudius seem stiff.

This is ultimately a serviceable production, more illustrating than invigorating. Hamlet, that perpetual conundrum, may never allow us to pluck out the heart of its mystery, but Rea and Brennan suggest that those inclined to delve a bit deeper will always be rewarded with something new. Until Mar 19, then at Everyman Palace Theatre, Cork, Mar 22-26