Oooh, Press Night! How fancy…
Well, it’s not really fancy. The only thing fancy about a press night is the free booze – it’s a shame I was driving…
BUT the best part about a Press Night is the fact that you get to be one of the first to see something new. And the production of Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse is certainly a new take on the classic story.
If you don’t know the story of Hamlet, think of The Lion King and you’re halfway there. Sadly there were no lions in this version of the classic Shakespeare play, BUT there was… drum roll, please… A FEMALE HAMLET.
Shock horror! The patriarchy is going mad at the news!
That’s right. In the Leeds Playhouse’s latest show of their rep-season, they have done a cheeky gender swap with some of the roles, including Hamlet, Horatio and Polonius.
I’ve never seen Hamlet on stage, due to not being the greatest fan of Shakespeare. (Aren’t I a terrible thespian!) But I did study it at AS Level, so I had a pretty clear understanding of the story.
That tends to be the problem with Shakespeare’s plays. Because of the language, people can struggle to understand what exactly is being said. Hence, they have no idea what is actually going on in the play. Well, I guess AS Level English was good for something after all because I feel like I could have passed with flying colours had I seen this production at the time.
The play was snipped down to the important moments so that there were no scenes just for the sake of it. This version of Hamlet was dramatic, efficient, and the story kept moving. It would be hard not to understand what was going on thanks to the actors’ natural dialogue and the director, Amy Leach’s, clear-cut direction.
The current creative team at Leeds Playhouse pride themselves on their newly-established rep cast of Northern actors. (Well, they’re all North of Birmingham… so some are teetering on the edge of their ‘Northern’ claims.)
The in-house Northern actors have a busy rep season putting on a number of plays. After Hamlet, the boys and girls split off for their separate gender pieces – ‘Around the world in 80 days’ and ‘Be my baby’.
It was my first time in the pop-up theatre at Leeds Playhouse, and this production of Hamlet was the perfect way to kick off my experience.
The pop-up theatre at Leeds Playhouse feels cool and edgy as you walk through the warehouse-style entrance. But once inside, it is a proper theatre with lots of seating and a simplistic black stage decorated with a lower level of candles and shrubbery, hinting at the themes of death and the supernatural in the play.
So, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Did I enjoy Hamlet at the Leeds Playhouse?
The answer is ‘yes’, I very much did. For an actor who isn’t a big fan of good old Shakespeare, this is quite a feat!
I loved the modern twist on the story. There may have been a war going on outside of the place grounds, but the real war was being waged inside.
The gender-swap casting creates a contemporary version of Hamlet that, as the director says, is for the here and now. Hamlet returns from University for her father’s funeral, only to be haunted by his ghost and discover that he was murdered by his own brother.
Alongside the grief of losing her father, her mother marries her uncle very soon after, creating tensions between them. On top of this, her female lover, Ophelia, is used as a pawn in homophobic Polonius’ plan to out her as a lesbian.
Using Northern accents for a number of the characters kept it feeling warm and relatable in our city of Leeds. I think anything that can make Shakespeare that bit more relatable to the modern public is a winner.
Tessa Parr played a fantastic Hamlet. I couldn’t care less that she was a woman playing a male role; I actually think that the role worked extremely well as a female. It added a new depth of emotion that felt raw and conflicted, rather than angry and revengeful. Her added comedic performance as she began to ‘lose her mind’ was also very funny, slicing the dramatic tension that can feel a bit prolonged at times in a Shakespeare drama.
Aside from Tessa Parr’s brilliant portrayal, there were many great performances in the show. Most notably, I enjoyed Jo Mousley as Gertrude, Hamlet’s despairing mother, and Simona Bitmate as a vulnerable and tragic Ophelia.
I wondered how a female Hamlet would work, and it surpassed my expectations. The gender-swapped roles were so seamless that I wouldn’t have known it was any different, had I not read the play.
The play feels far from stuffy Shakespeare and truly brings the story into the modern age. If you like a bit of humour, a whole lot of drama and a spot of violent tension, then Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse is definitely worth a visit.
Maybe I can like Shakespeare after all…