Review By Laura Heuston
At the conclusion of Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet, director Peter Evans put it best when he humbly said: “this is Harriet’s show”. Harriet Gordon-Anderson brings a faithful but completely fresh voice to the iconic part, and a new level of complexity to the relationships of the play through Hamlet’s revolutionary femininity and philosophy.
The character of Hamlet has not been changed to a female one, but the decision to cast a woman means that numerous dynamics are changed and the intensity of the acting lends a slightly different meaning to so many of the interactions. Hamlet’s hatred of women, primarily due to his disgust at his mother’s swift remarriage to his uncle, now has the added element of self-hatred and thus the personal tragedy somehow goes beyond murder and incest. His treatment of Ophelia (Sophie Wilde) somehow makes more sense now- the cruelty is motivated by a deep insecurity rather than the assumption that all women are genuinely as vapid as Gertrude (Lisa McCune). And as uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, the physical altercation between mother and son truly demonstrated the twisting intimacy that comes to light during domestic violence when it was between two women. Maybe it is because I am desensitised to men abusing women in art, but I don’t think I have ever watched a scene that made me so uncomfortable due to the clear personal closeness between perpetrator and survivor. Of course I must credit the incredible acting, but I don’t believe it is a coincidence that a gender flipped role had such a profound impact in a scene of this nature.
Hamlet relies almost entirely on the titular character in terms of action (despite the lack thereof) and therefore to miscast this show is to destroy it. Thankfully Gordon-Anderson was, in a word, phenomenal. And you need to be, to manage such a part. Dramaturg James Evans has done a spectacular job of editing the play down to under 2 and a half hours, however it meant for Gorden-Anderson that almost every scene was iconic soliloquy after iconic soliloquy. In the hands of a lesser actor, I might have started to grow impatient with the character (as is understandable- you’re morose, we get it) however she had me right until curtain. And I think this was, in no small part, due to the element of existentialism that she brought to the question of her madness. No longer did I see a man pretending in order to confuse those around him, or someone suffering from an unnamed affliction who accidentally hallucinated the truth. This was a young philosopher, who had truly come to question the intrinsic value of people and the world due to the traumas that surrounded her. And so, she no longer had time to humor the chattery Polonius (Robert Menzies) or the transparent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jeremi Campese and Jane Mahady) unless it was to laugh at the ridiculousness of a mortality without meaning. Her character is smart. Her character is relatable for all depressed millennials. Her character is a testament to the universality of Shakespeare.
There is much to say about all the actors and creatives involved in this production, however I cannot do them all justice so I’ll just have to insist you go see it for yourself. You will undoubtedly fall in love and deeply mourn the loss of beautiful, witty Ophelia, with Wilde’s singing voice lending a truly soulful and disturbing foreshadowing to her final lines. All the comedic characters will have you laughing constantly, and the villains are vile without being grotesque. If nothing else, come for the fencing. It’s transfixing. Bell Shakespeare loves their audio-visual additions and this show is no exception, and though it’s not Titus Andronicus level impact, these additions do add a nostalgia to the play that cements the bond between the fiercely warring parties.
And it is these connections, this twisted love, that makes this play a tragedy of such epic proportions. Everyone involved once cared deeply for the others, but fate and lust (for power or each other) has made them unrecognisable even to their dearest compatriots. Hamlet is the final fall after the dice has already been cast, and so while tragic from the outset, you can’t help but mourn the loss of the time of innocence and care that we manage to glimpse between the misery.
Image Credit: Brett Boardman
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.