Hamlet is transformed into an exploration of family, identity, and personal relationships in Theatre Group's innovative take on the classic tragedy.
The lights go up on a young man in a chair, illuminated in red light, convulsing with terror at the sight of ghosts. This is the quintessential Hamlet, haunted and disturbed, but as he leaves and the lights go up once more, on a family at the dinner table, this production’s true Hamlet appears. As Theatre Group complete their Year of the Gender Swap, they present a female Hamlet, and a production full of twists on the renowned and beloved Shakespeare tragedy.
Hamlet’s father has died, and her Uncle Claudius (Rob Bradshaw) has married her mother, Gertrude (Ellie Joyce). When the ghost of her father appears to her, and reveals to her that he was murdered by his brother, Hamlet begins to plan her revenge. To allay suspicion, she feigns madness, but soon the lines between truth and fiction begin to blur, and the consequences are bloody.
This Hamlet is not a prince, (nor a princess), and there is no Fortinbras avenging his father or attempting to invade. Instead, this is a deeply personal play about family and identity, the crystal-pattern wallpaper and Picasso paintings making the focus on the fractured self obvious from the start.
Even the ghost that appears at the beginning (to Horatio, as it turns out) is not a single entity, but a collection of breaths and voices that call out snatches of speech, disjointed and chaotic. Some of the speeches are therefore lost in this interpretation, but this production does not lose anything from this. The ghost instead creates a feeling of claustrophobia and entrapment that fits well within this modern-day exploration of familial conflict and oppression.
Flora Whitmarsh as Hamlet is simply magnetic. She embodies the witty, disturbed, philosophical, and violent facets of Hamlet with equal integrity and intensity, and with a youthful energy that makes the deeds done in her ‘madness’ all the more affecting and, even for such a well-known play, unexpected.
Ophelia, portrayed by As You Like It’s Rosalind (Katherine Quinn) is quietly intense, shining especially in her madness, with her sunken eyes and mournful, manic songs, but equally engaging as the silenced daughter of Polonius, and persecuted lover of Hamlet.
Charlie Randall’s Horatio picks up on the homoerotic undertones of the original script; a lovesick, obedient friend of Hamlet, frustratingly unable to force good advice upon his charge. His performance allows for both laughter and tears, and makes the play’s conclusion particularly moving.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Natalia May and Darius Timmerman, or is it the other way round?) are wonderfully shallow party people, presumably just back from their gap year, whimsical and clumsy. Joyce’s Gertrude is complex, a caring but unsatisfactory mother. Bradshaw’s Claudius is a scheming, deceptive patriarch, and Kaustubh Sameer’s Laertes a fiercely compassionate soldier. Alex Heyre’s Polonius is the perfect bumbling fool, but with an interestingly fraught relationship with his daughter.
There were more clever details in the set, staging, and costume than I could ever hope to write down, and each character was fully formed with complexity and originality. With strong performances from the ensemble, clever direction, and packing a real emotional punch, this is not a Theatre Group production to miss. To see, or not to see – there’s no question.
Theatre Group’s Hamlet will be performed at 7:30 3-5th May at the Annex Theatre. Tickets are available here.