ADC Theatre, Tues 21st May – Sat 25th, 7.45pm
Once again the Marlowe Society has revivified a masterpiece of Elizabethan drama for a modern audience, but this time there is a twist: Hamlet, struggling with love for Ophelia and desperate to avenge the death of the king, is now a young woman.
Sarah Livingstone as the lead was perfection itself. It felt like she was born for this role and, if nothing else, the decision to recast Hamlet as a woman should be praised for giving her an opportunity to really showcase her skill. Her oscillations between sanity and madness, her interactions with all of the other characters and the solid emotional backbone to every single one of her lines truly made this production. Ophelia (Ellen Robertson) was most powerful in exploring her relationship with Hamlet, and particularly in the rejection scene; the lesbian element used by this production also added more depth to the idea of forbidden love.
Lady Hamlet was not the only gender change. The Players, of whom Kay Dent deserves special mention for the intensity of her monologues, were also recast as women. Their miniature play, preceded by an interesting prologue of shadows cast on a screen, ended the first half in a scene of pure chaos in which the words were allowed to slip into the background. Polonius (Charlotte Quinney) was transformed into a mother, adding a much stronger family dynamic; the comic scenes in general, and Tom Fraser in particular, were very strong in this production.
Matt Clayton brought an innovative approach to the role of the dead king, quite apart from the touching father-daughter dynamic enabled by the gender changes. He seemed more zombie or demon than ghost, as he writhed around the stage in the half-light, and the difficulty with which he first spoke as he struggled to cross the boundary between life and death was very engaging, if hard to follow. Most of the other performances were very good, but lacked the extra depth and finesse needed to really pull the characters right to the foreground; in particular, more might have been made of the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Scenes without Livingstone had the tendency to feel like filler material, rather than fully engaging our interest.
The elephant in the room thus far is the supposed Cold War setting. Absolutely nothing was made of this. It influenced the costume design – generally strong – and sometimes the music choice – less effective and sometimes too distracting – but had no impact on interpretation or emotional presentation of the text. The giant clock counting down played upon the Cold War theme, but in the long period between the innovation wearing off and the final climax (when it came back into play) it seemed more a reminder of the length of this show and exacerbated the moments at which it dragged. The lack of the most basic props was often annoying; perhaps the budget was blown on fencing equipment, in which case the excitement of the final duel suggests it was money well-spent.
As my companion noted, despite the best attempts of our schoolteachers it is impossible to read Hamlet; we are always ‘re-reading’ it, as it is so ingrained in our cultural backgrounds. Equally, you never really get to see Hamlet for the first time. Yet maybe, with the new perspectives offered, if not by the Cold War setting then certainly by the female lead, by this production, you can.
Image: ADC Theatre