By Lucy Shelley
The dramatic industry has been constantly criticised for the lack of representation of women. Throughout history, women have taken a back foot which is subsequently reflected in the arts. In response, we have seen a recent surge of all-female casts and female protagonists. However, some of these castings feel more like forced political correctness, so I was eager to see how The Leeds Playhouse handles a female Hamlet. Shakespeare’s (male orientated) plays have been known to be relevant in all time periods but more recently, we have come to witness his characters bridge gender as well. The Leeds Playhouse’s production of Hamlet is an impressive example of how gender swaps can be successful and produce an equally impactful production.
The Leeds Playhouse produced a dramatic modern retelling of the revenge tale. A minimalist symmetrical set portrayed the controlled order of the military state and the entrapment that Hamlet felt in his mind. The constant mist mirrored the imagery of the disease in Shakespeare’s writing. This production clearly reflected the text in detail however, the striking difference were the gender swaps of the originally male characters: Hamlet, Polonius and Horatio.
With Hamlet as a woman, the relationship with Ophelia was therefore a homosexual one. Shakespeare’s writing often has male homosexual references but never portrays a lesbian love. Considering a relationship like this was never written for these characters, it worked convincingly. It added a different and more literal meaning to Hamlet’s comedic line ‘man delight not me.’ Furthermore, when Polonius tries to prevent the relationship of Ophelia and Hamlet, this could be seen as a homophobic view of older generations, reflecting discriminations that are apparent in today’s society. Hamlet contains themes of appearance of reality as in many of Shakespeare’s plays. The line ‘to hold, a ‘twere, a mirror up to nature’ explains the purpose of art in society: to represent the world and our place in it. Shakespeare’s plays have been commended for the ability to relevant to audiences of different time periods. In this production, his work, again, successfully reflects the current world we live in where LGBTQ+ community is more widely accepted yet prejudices still remain.
Although the same story is being told, the gender swaps also provide new meanings that haven’t been explored in the original telling of the play. For example, Hamlet is often compared to Laertes as a revenge hero. Laertes is the far better one at that: he is decisive and active in his revenge whereas Hamlet delays her action. This contrast is emphasised by their differing sex. Laertes’ motivated revenge can be seen as a violent male impulse and Hamlet’s delay representing more thoughtful female qualities, tending to be less violent than her male counterpart.
The theme of being watched is portrayed well in the play. Hamlet is never alone when giving her monologues; other characters are visible upstage. The set consisted primarily of six streetlights with tannoys, painting a sense of entrapment and the felling that you’re being observed. This is true, of course, for Hamlet, whose ‘madness’ and disposition are under constant scrutiny. With the recasting of Hamlet as female, these bring light to the issues that women face in society. Do they too feel trapped and observed like Hamlet? Hamlet’s suffering could align with the suffering felt by women in society who have expectations thrust upon them, particularly in the current age of social media.
This is why Shakespeare’s work is relevant to so many audiences. His characters are so relatable in their exhibition of human qualities that modern day audiences can relate personally, despite the different contexts, with characters written over 400 years ago.
Image Credit: Leeds Playhouse