West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Mar 5-30, 2019
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” says Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude, in an early scene in Shakespeare’s most iconic work. The misogyny is clear, one facet of Hamlet’s borderline oedipal relationship with his mother and also evident in his treatment of Ophelia. In director Amy Leach’s interpretation, however, Hamlet is a woman. In this production, Leach manages to shine a completely new light not only upon this particular line of dialogue, rearranging its gender politics into new shapes, teasing out themes of sexuality, but most importantly, she thoroughly reinvigorates this play in a way that arguably improves the narrative and makes it fresh and relevant today. Now, it’s not entirely unheard of for Hamlet to be played by a woman, but for the character to re-gendered as a Princess of Denmark is where this production boldly strays away from convention. And the convention shredding doesn’t stop there.
It starts with a wordless prologue that takes place before Act 1, Scene 1. Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is engaging in a playful sword fight with a similarly re-gendered Horatio. Parr is energetic and flirtatious, licking her lips at her opponent – we’re in entirely new territory here and this is a suitably audacious statement of intent. We are then taken silently through King Hamlet’s funeral and the subsequent coronation of Claudius and his marriage to Gertrude. Along the way, Hamlet manages to engage in passionate embrace with Ophelia. Never mind that we’re watching a female Hamlet, this Hamlet is unapologetically gay. This is in no way merely shoe horned into the narrative to serve an agenda, this Hamlet feels as though this is the way the play should have been all along. What an opening sequence – it effortlessly sets the tone and themes to be developed upon later, all without the need to utter a single word. In a way, it’s almost a disappointment when the cast set upon the main text of the play and begin to speak. Almost.
At this point, it is worth stopping for a moment to admire the production design on display. The stage is a two tier affair, minimal but with enough detail to perfectly encapsulate Elsinore Castle. The lower tier is bedecked with wreaths and candles to represent a graveyard and provide a hint of the tragedies to come. On the top tier, stark metal poles mounted with floodlights provide a harsh modern light, occasionally sinking into darkness to be replaced by strips of neon light that are at times abstract and at other become crucifixes. The cast use the stage to its full potential, with energetic militaristic displays and tightly choreographed sword fights. They are all dressed in modern costume, from tracksuits, to army camouflage, to pyjamas… At one point, Ophelia sports a set of headphones as she listens to music in her bedroom. Smoke billows out from the stage at key moments to soften the stark edges of the set, to transform it from its modern landscape and plunge it into a more timeless and ghostly atmosphere. Full marks to Hayley Grindle (set design) and Joshua Carr (lighting), the work on display elevates the production to a high level.
Further adding to the atmosphere is Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s hauntological soundtrack – filled with eerie drones, crackles of static, flashes of synthesiser melodies and glitchy echoes of gunfire. The soundtrack starts as the audience begins to take their seats and never lets up, a wonderful mix of old and new that is in perfect step with this iteration of Hamlet.
In all honesty, the quality of the acting isn’t entirely commensurate with the thematic ambition and production design, but there is still a great deal to celebrate. At the top of the list is Susan Twist’s standout performance as Lady Polonius – she delivers a light and comedic take on the character, an overbearing matriarchal figure, who drips with disdain at her daughter Ophelia’s dalliances with a woman (the horror!) and a seemingly unhinged one at that. I’ve never seen this character so vital. Ophelia’s exchanges with her mother bear all the hallmarks of a difficult coming out to an even more difficult parent and the scene bursts with energy as it absorbs new meaning.
Robert Pickavance’s performance as the gravedigger delivers another highpoint, bringing much needed comic relief as the tragedies begin to hit thick and fast. There’s a lightness of touch at work in these comic performances – the strong emphasis on humour prevents the otherwise heavy plot from becoming unbearable. It’s also worth noting that the production leans away from a reliance on the classic soliloquies, which are often delivered in muted tones. Instead, the real focus is placed on the more throwaway conversational dialogue, which is a delight to listen to as it revels in bringing to the fore the northern accents and phrasings of the cast and allows the smaller – but equally important – character moments to shine.
Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is a very fragmented affair, and this is potentially a deliberate decision. She switches from maudlin contemplation to a manic confidence and then into a very theatrical despair. At moments this performance can come across as uneven. However, at its high points, this is a stunning, energetic and very natural performance, one that sells every single decision and narrative alteration made throughout.
The plot itself is stripped back in several ways – Rosencrantz appears on his own without his friend Guildenstern, the character of Fortinbras is merely referred to as story context but is never seen, and the play that Hamlet commissions to prove his uncle’s guilt happens entirely in the imaginations of the main characters as they sit in a row and stare out at the audiences. These cuts and abbreviations provide a refreshing economy and efficiency to the plot, whilst the playful gender switching adds an additional depth.
There was nothing but a palpable sense of warmth in the auditorium for these reimagined characters. This is a version of Hamlet that both managed to pass the Bechdel test for possibly the first time in its performance history, and in its twisting of the line, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” provides a real dramatic irony as Hamlet is no longer chastising womanhood for their perceived flaws, but is instead unwittingly chastising herself for her own tragic flaws. It’s hard to imagine that this version isn’t the one intended originally by Shakespeare, all the parts fits so perfectly together.