Feature: Hamlet – She’s a Lady!

25 April 2013

Hannah Greenstreet interviews Sarah Livingstone about taking on the role of one of theatre’s best loved Danish malcontents: Hamlet…

In an article in The Cambridge Student last term, Suzanne Duffy opined, “Why can’t Hamlet be played by a middle aged, Indian woman?” As if in answer to her prayers, Niall Wilson’s upcoming Marlowe Society production has cast a (twenty year old, white) woman in the title role: Sarah Livingstone.

Livingstone is preparing for the role with gusto, cheerily remarking that, in the week before her exams, she will be performing one of Shakespeare’s longest parts. She believes that the challenges she faces as a female Hamlet are no different from a male actor preparing the role; “the fact that it’s Hamlet” is still most intimidating, as “you’ve got such a canon of really great actors who have gone before you.” This tradition is, overwhelmingly, male. Indeed, Livingstone remarks that there is a “type” of forty-something white, male actor who takes on the role: “It’s almost as if they take it turns. They get to a certain age or a certain time in their career when they think, oh, it’s time to play Hamlet now.” Wilson’s casting, as well as the setting of the production in Soviet Russia in the 1980s, aims to yield a reimagining of the play that is not often seen.

However, despite its rarity in recent years, Livingstone tells me that she is actually following in a tradition of female Hamlets, starting with Sarah Siddons in the eighteenth-century, who played the part nine times over her career. The first Hamlet on film was Sarah Bernhardt, who took the lead in a two-minute silent film, Le Duel d’Hamlet, in 1900. Asta Nielson played Hamlet in a 1921 film version, in which the Danish prince had been born a woman but was disguised at birth to preserve the dynasty.

Having Hamlet be a woman (rather than just the actor playing him/ her) drives Wilson’s production artistically. The parts of Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also cross-cast, which turns Polonius from “a bumbling old dad” into “a pushy mother” and generally alters the dynamics of the play. Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia is just as intense but is now a lesbian relationship. Livingstone sees Hamlet, in some ways, as a universal part: “the stuff that he or she is feeling I think everyone can relate to. Her Dad’s died. She’s pretty pissed off. And she’s in a difficult position because she’s in the public eye.” Yet there are also parts of the play that she finds make more sense if Hamlet is read as a female character, such as Hamlet’s ability to articulate his or her melancholy.

As well as allowing a reinterpretation of a well-known play (and, perhaps, dispensing with the baggage of the well-worn Oedipal interpretation), Wilson’s casting choice does afford female actors in Cambridge a welcome opportunity. Livingstone comments that Wilson was aware “that there are a lot of female actors in Cambridge , just because of the way theatre is, there aren’t that many female parts”, something particularly noticeable in Shakespeare, a stalwart of student theatre programming. She relishes the chance to explore plays that student theatre allows: it is a time when “you can play not just other genders but other ages”; a twenty year old can play a sixty year old.

Nonetheless, Livingstone thinks that there are some roles that you cannot cast blind or cross gender. She points to A Streetcar Named Desire (at the ADC from 30th April) as an example, as she says that it depends so much upon the dynamic between Stanley and Blanche. However, she is confident that all of the big Shakespearean parts can be cross-cast and believes that “regardless of whether you’re male or female I think we’ve all got a bit of male or female within us.” Let’s hope for some female Macbeths, Lears and Othellos (as well as some male Lady Macbeths, Cordelias and Desdemonas) in Cambridge in the near future.

Hamlet is on at the ADC Theatre, Tues 21st- Sat 25th May.