Hamlet's Game of Thrones

Icarus Theatre Company set out to show Shakespeare as the HBO fantasist of his time in this take on his timeless tragedy

He didn’t coin the marketing line that his new version of Hamlet is aimed at the Game of Thrones generation, but he wishes he had. Chicago-born Max Lewendel, artistic director of Icarus Theatre Collective, is a devoted fan of HBO's medieval fantasy epic, which, as we all know, is filmed in Belfast’s Titanic Studios and on location across the north. That is a fact of which, until now, he had been completely unaware. But it comes as exciting news to him as the company prepares to cross the Irish Sea to perform in the Millennium Forum in Derry~Londonderry, the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine and Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey.

'I’ll definitely have to try and book myself on one of those tours,' he says. 'Sounds fantastic.'

Icarus is no stranger to Northern Ireland having visited several times over the past seven years. Its edgy, risky performances are always heavily subscribed, with audiences of all ages responding enthusiastically to a presentational style which Lewendel describes as ‘theatre that moves’.

'Whether we are working on a classic text or a new play, we tell the story visually, concentrating on the original text but exuding energy, emotion and genuine human reactions,' he explains. 'Our actors do not stand centre stage solemnly declaiming "To be or not to be?" They respond to the emotions of the moment with a kind of kinetic energy that makes direct connections with the audience’s own feelings and brings them right into the core action of the play. We try to mix things up, to do things a little differently. We have cross-cast some of the major roles to make the gender balance more equitable and give it a contemporary relevance to the year 2017. In our ensemble cast, Horatio and Rosencrantz are played by women.

'This Hamlet is aimed at newcomers to Shakespeare as well as to people who may have seen the play many times. To my mind, it’s the greatest play ever written. People are afraid of Shakespeare, they think his plays are difficult to understand but they really are not. I was describing our version to the manager of a theatre … the violence, the dirty jokes, the wild rampaging, the page-turning qualities of the story. He said it sounded like Game of Thrones and, you know what, he’s right. Shakespeare wrote for the same audience as the writers of Game of Thrones. He was pushing back the barriers as far as the censors of the time let him get away with and that’s exactly what they do.'

But there is, too, a deeper, sometimes darker aspect to the company’s work as it constantly strives to take on issues from which others would step back. One of those issues is mental health, a subject of which Lewendel freely and frankly admits he has particular and personal experience.

'We set out to defy the stigmas surrounding mental health, underlining the fact that it is a widespread issue in our society and one which is so often misunderstood,' he says. 'It regularly informs my play choices; I try to choose characters who suffer from mental illness … Othello, Macbeth, Hedda Gabler. Hamlet is another prime example. His father has been violently murdered and his mother, whom he loves very much, has married his father’s brother, the man who murdered him. Now his father’s ghost has returned to haunt him and beg for revenge. When we see him on stage, he’s not just moping about, he’s not just sad, he’s not manic depressive. He’s sick. He’s suffering from clinical depression. The appearance of the ghost acts like medication, it energises him, it makes him seen really happy to the extent that his actions are then badly misinterpreted.

'Some people call Hamlet’s indecision a tragic flaw but it’s more than that. It’s not a flaw; that makes it sound so negative. His problem is that he’s too trusting of people and then they bring him down. It’s a good quality in a person but in someone with his illness, it can be very destructive. I have had my own struggles with depression so this text is very resonant to me; it is something I understand very well. As a practitioner, I believe that you are at your best when you write or act or direct what you know, when you can bring personal experience into the creative process.'

The company functions as a collective and is comprised of a group of artists, producers and managers, some of whom have been on board for a number of years. Each company member is encouraged to pitch projects and ideas and Lewendal is delighted that a freelance staff member, who works as a sound engineer, musician and composer, recently requested a move into production management and producing, thereby gaining more control over the work he does.

'The company is constantly evolving. Up until fairly recently, I would have been the person choosing the plays. I was really delighted when our sound engineer, who is also a brilliant musician, came to me with an idea. What he had in mind was the first stage adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s chilling novel At the Mountains of Madness. We toured it last year and it was a tremendous success.'

Hamlet production image 2 credit Jack Ladenburg

Describing himself as always open to ideas and suggestions, Lewendel allows the conversation to turn to one of the company’s earlier productions, the premiere of Rip Her to Shreds by Belfast writer Grant Corr at the Old Red Lion Theatre in north London in 2010. It focuses on the tortuous choices facing a gay teenager growing up in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.

'We have had great experiences in Northern Ireland,' says Lewendel. 'The audiences are so warm and supportive. The first person to bring us over was Jeremy Lewis, who was the manager of the Riverside in Coleraine for many years. We owe a lot to Jeremy’s faith in us. We’ve never played Rip Her to Shreds there and, yeah, maybe now the time is right. I’ll have a think about it, have a chat with the others. It could happen.'

The company’s dynamic artistic approach is summed up by its name, taken from the boy Icarus in Greek mythology, who flew too close to the sun and plummeted to his death when his waxen wings melted under the intense heat. As a creative, Lewendel fervently believes in the artist's right to try, to fail, to take risks.

'We set out to destroy boundaries, to explore the beauty of the text and use the skills of the actors to consider themes that are often harsh or brutal. Like Icarus, we are constantly trying to reach for the sun, sometimes going too close for comfort, whether or not we succeed. Come and see our Hamlet and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.'

Hamlet is at the Millennium Forum on January 26 and 27, Theatre at the Mill on January 28 and the Riverside Theatre on February 8.