Hamlet Review: Tessa Parr inspires in a re-gendered production

Hamlet can often seem like a play in danger of being over-done. With that said, through change and adaptation, this production achieves a fresh reinvigoration that is essential for a modern take on the classical canon. Director Amy Leach delivers a memorable production of the Shakespearean standard with the re-gendering of the central characters Hamlet, Horatio and Polonius.

Traditionally, the role of Hamlet is one of the most difficult in all of theatre, demanding a complicated and intrinsically introspective portrayal that must at once be both pensive and maddened. This mammoth task warrants an exceptionally competent actor. The chosen actors have only occasionally been women, with veteran actors like Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt, and more recently Fiona Shaw and Maxine Peak, taking on the role. This ensured Tessa Parr had quite a standard to follow.

Nevertheless, Parr cuts a fine Hamlet. She is playful, with youthful angst, whilst being tear-wrenchingly stoic in the death scene. Parr’s Hamlet is only slightly shaky in the second half, when her portrayal totters on the line between showing a rational mind bent by grief and murderous intentions, and a blind madness that borders on being hysterical.

Parr’s re-gendered Hamlet is complimented by the remarkable portrayals of Horatio and Polonius as women by Crystal Condie and Susan Twist. Certainly, this re-gendering involves changing some of Shakespeare’s words, but a larger part of the changes involves re-imagining and separating the performance history of the play from the text. Overall, though this re-gendering changes Hamlet for the good, (although some Shakespearean traditionalists and academics will undoubtedly be horrified). This change opens the play up to new themes, possibilities and potentially new cultural theories.

The re-gendering is not the only innovative part of Leach’s production. Even before the actors appear on stage, it is clear that this production is going to be unusual. The set (designed by Haley Grindle) is comprised of two levels, and is black, sleek and futuristic-looking. The costumes also are plain, almost Scandi-inspired, which again sets the scene of a world in the near-future. The plot itself also seems stripped-back, most obviously with the entire omission of the character Guildenstern.

This, however, does not detract anything from the play, in this production it seems to make the play less needlessly complicated. In fact, this pared-back production emphasizes the talent of its minimal cast, especially that of the stand-out performance by Simona Bitmate as an anxious, doubtful and genuinely disturbed Ophelia. The only underdeveloped part of the play is perhaps the same-sex relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, which seems hastily touched on. But overall, this imaginative and fast-paced new take on the Shakespearean classic makes for a riveting few hours of theatre.

Image credit: https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk