ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
Hamlet is a tragedy, yes—Shakespeare’s play is fully titled, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark—but it’s more than the gold standard of tragedies. Full of suffering and death, the Bard of Avon’s text is a near-treatise on the human condition: psychological meanderings, the existence of suffering and death, and darker thoughts, such as murder and revenge.
Set in Denmark, the ghost of the truth-telling deceased King Hamlet walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle, where all the action takes place. A well-known line from the play, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” is spoken by Marcellus, a guard at Elsinore.
In the PlayMakers Repertory Company (PRC) current production of Hamlet, Feb. 7-19, something is, instead, quite fresh in Denmark.
The professional theater company in residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, PRC has swapped the genders of key characters, with the accompanying pronoun aligned with each change, for a reimagining of the tale of young Hamlet attempting to exact revenge—and struggling with it—on her uncle, Claudius, who has murdered her father, taken the throne and married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
In PRC’s version of Hamlet, gender-swapping results in different relationship perspectives: mother-daughter replaces father-son, and son-mother becomes father-daughter. Other relationships change as well, as discussed further in this piece.
In PRC’s Hamlet, the monarchy in Denmark is Black.
A quick look at reinterpreting Shakespeare
It is common practice to reinterpret Shakespeare. There are practical reasons for modifying Shakespeare, such as shortening lengthy plays for narrative appeal or eliminating antiquated jokes. PRC’s production has a digestible two-and-a-half-hour runtime, plus a 15-minute intermission. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version runs four hours.
In Shakespeare’s day, men played women’s roles because women weren’t allowed on stage, but their portrayal was to be seen as a female in a woman’s character. Over time, women have performed in men’s roles—intended to still be seen as men.
So, this is not the first time a woman has played Hamlet. Tragedienne Sarah Siddons‘ played the role in the British provinces starting in 1775, until she was 47. Sarah Bernhardt was the first to assume the role in cinema for a 1900 film, after portraying Hamlet on stage in Paris and London in 1899.
Today, however, companies are looking at not just having women appear as males, but for the roles to be recognized within the plays as female. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, puts on productions of Shakespeare that are “50-50 gender split.”
Directors and productions have molded his plays in ways greater than staging and directing the acting alone. While Shakespeare’s plays have built-in maneuverability, allowing for new versions and interpretations, these directorial choices cannot be arbitrary. Whether it is to reflect changes in the culture or make artistic statements about the nature of life, to empower the unequal or to shift a hierarchy, modifying Shakespeare must be purposeful with a meaningful context.
These artistic choices are what PRC has done.
Delving into the PlayMakers vision for Hamlet
To learn more about the vision for this production, The Local Reporter (TLR) provided prompts that resulted in a transcripted conversation between PRC’s Producing Artistic Director and Director of Hamlet Vivienne Benesch and Associate Director JaMeeka Holloway.
Arriving at the decision to swap genders, “came sort of in stages,” explained Benesch.
“The first came from the desire to have Tia [James] play Hamlet … when I was watching her as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar a couple of years ago, the light bulb kind of went off,” she said.
The relationships in the play take on new meanings when Hamlet is brought to life by a female (Tia James) and her mother, Gertrude (Kathryn Hunter-Williams) now has a daughter. It is this same daughter, Hamlet, who also speaks to and receives instructions from her murdered father’s apparition to exact revenge.
“It grew out of our own company and grew out of a sensibility that giving a women’s lens to these roles was in no way squeezing something out of it, but actually opening something that already exists there,” Benesch said.
Gender-swapping and pronoun-switching extends to Horatio (Hayley Cartee)—Hamlet’s friend from school—and to Laertes (Rasool Jahan), the brother of Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) and son of Polonius, who is the Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’ court.
In the case of Horatio and Hamlet, it is now a female friendship. Ophelia (Sanjana Taskar) has a sister instead of a brother in Laertes.
“I think we were interested in a more psychological Hamlet,” said Benesch. “It’s really streamlined as a family drama, and I think a suspense thriller about how we come to terms with the way we live our lives.”
This was partially achieved by cutting the looming war with Norway that is in the original play, together with the smaller characters involved in that war. The focus is more on the relationships, not to mention the time-savings in presentation when the original play clocks in at just under 30,000 words.
Benesch admits that recontextualizing Shakespeare is one of her favorite things to do—to make a director’s cut, as it were.
“I don’t think you’ll see a production of Hamlet or really any Shakespeare that is not a director’s cut. It’s how you get to know the play, wrestling with it, and the story you want to tell,” she said.
For example, when it comes to the now queer relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, Benesch says the following in this PRC podcast: “I’m sort of imagining it 30 years from today … sort of retro-futurist … in the sense that queerness is not ‘otherized.’ It just is part of the social complex.”
The Black monarchy at Elsinore is approached with a similar sensibility, according to Holloway, who stated, “You see a Black family at the helm of a Shakespeare, and it’s just a Black family at the helm of a Shakespeare. It’s these complex people with these complex relationships who happen to be Black.”
The production is scored by Peter Vitale’s live soundscape. According to Holloway, the sound accompaniment enhances “psychological close-up moments, which we’ve called the PCUs … Peter’s sound actually really opens those moments up for us to really take these peeks into the interior.”
The musical theme continues in the set design and some costuming. “A musical influence will be a part of the storytelling, complete with organ pipes, piano keys, and instrumental costumes,” said Co-Scenic Designer Amber Meadows in this post.
PlayMakers’ changes reinforce how Shakespeare wrote these characters and used the dramatic convention of soliloquies—where characters speak their thoughts to the audience—to move through their psyches with an array of mental gyrations, as well as thoughtful philosophizing about the nature of life.
This short video by PRC is a good look into what viewers can expect from Hamlet, with shows resuming Feb. 7 and extended through Feb. 19 due to delays related to COVID-19. The performances take place at the Paul Green Theatre in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art at UNC, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill.
UPDATE: This article was updated post-publication on Feb. 4, 2023, with information from PRC that it will open Feb. 7, a day earlier than previously stated. The PRC website notes that the Feb. 7 performance will be socially distanced.
Pamir Kiciman is a writer/poet, artist/artisan, photographer, healer, and meditation teacher. To learn more, visit https://liinks.co/reiki.wordsmith or contact him by email: email@example.com.
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