Over four centuries, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been performed on stage countless times. It is rare to find a production that defies tradition; one that feels different to the plethora of other Hamlets out there. Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women collaborate together to bring an all-female version of Shakespeare’s iconic play to Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre. It is a production that defiantly dares to challenge traditional conventions.
Female Hamlet has been done before, most notably with Maxine Peake playing the fated Dane in The Royal Exchange’s 2014 production. Michelle Terry’s recent gender-blind Hamlet at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre confirmed that having a woman play Hamlet is nothing new. Neither is an all-female cast performing Shakespeare’s plays, as shown with this year’s Richard II at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and Donmar Warehouse’s 2016 trilogy of Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Henry IV.
What makes this Hamlet refreshingly distinctive is that it unashamedly refuses to provide a context as to why women are playing the parts. There are no statements around gender-blind casting, nor does it feel the need to make Shakespeare’s male characters female, with Polonius becoming Polonia. Unlike the Donmar’s version, the decision to have women playing the roles doesn’t require justification by setting it in a women’s prison, with its inmates performing the plays. This version at Hope Mill Theatre is a female cast performing Shakespeare. Get over it!
Another thing that makes this production so compelling is the variety of working-class voices speaking the play’s timeless dialogue. For too long, there has been a distinct London-centric elitism surrounding Shakespeare. It is considered by some as being ‘too high brow’ for Northern actors to perform. But as a working-class audience member, I want to see people like myself represented on stage. Imagine how inspirational it was for me to discover that the actress playing Hamlet, Eve Shotton, went to my college. This is a production that breaks down the barriers surrounding working-classes performing Shakespeare, without being sidelined into playing the Clown or Fool roles. It deserves the utmost credit for doing so!
Shotton is magnificent as Hamlet. She shares an endearing relationship with Sophie Giddens‘ Horatio. You can truly believe that they are old school friends. Shotton also wonderfully adapts her performance to suit the intimate venue of Hope Mill Theatre. She retains eye contact with the audience throughout her soliloquies, adding a naturalism that emphasises the intimacy of Shakespeare’s famous speeches. Delivering lines like “Am I a coward? Who calls me villain?” directly to the audience breaks the fourth wall, allowing them access to Hamlet’s tormented mind.
Eve Shotton’s understated Hamlet is more accessible than most, with her character’s madness being toned down to occasional outbursts of ecstatic wildness. There is no extravagant costume, like Michelle Terry’s Clown or Benedict Cumberbatch’s toy soldier, indicating that Hamlet’s lunacy is an “antic disposition“. Instead, it appears that it is actually Ophelia’s rejections of love that sends the character into madness. It becomes evident that her Hamlet feels a deep, underlying love towards Ophelia (Maryam Ali), and seems profoundly hurt when Ophelia returns his letters of affection. The subsequent “Get thee to a nunnery” scene isn’t performed violently towards Ophelia, as with most productions. Instead, Shotton lovingly pleads with her. Even when Hamlet claims “I loved you not“, you can hear the emotion cracking her voice that denotes Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. It is a beautiful, compelling scene with deftly subtle acting that highlights the character’s softer side, rather than him being abusive towards the woman he loves.
Although this makes the all-female production sound like a morose affair, this version brilliantly captures the comedy aspects of Shakespeare’s tragedy, that are usually edited out. These comedic scenes offset the play’s pathos, and help hold the audience’s attention over Hamlet‘s lengthy running time. The Players are brilliantly turned into melodramatic, ‘hammed up’ actors who use overly expressive movements during the “Rugged Pyrrhus” speech and “The Mouse Trap“. These are usually the parts of the play that make me switch off. Thanks to Amy Gavin‘s hilariously overdramatic Player King, accompanied by disastrous fellow players, Brianna Douglas and Zoey Barnes, they were some of my favourite scenes in the play.
Gavin affirms her incredible comic skill as the Grave Digger. It is the first production I have seen that doesn’t edit the part of this scene before Hamlet arrives, and it works wonders! There is a sharp comic rapport between Gavin and Hannah Ellis Ryan, who plays the second grave digger. The lighthearted banter exchanged in this scene is required following the tragic suicide of Ophelia. I have watched dozens of different Hamlets and this is the best Grave Digger scene I have ever seen.
Similarly, Emily Hayworth undoubtedly provides the greatest portrayal of Polonius that I have watched. Adding great humour into the role, Hayworth’s Polonius is like an excitable puppy, desperate for the approval of the King (Maria Major). Superbly mastering pauses for comic effect, Hayworth adds a breath of fresh air to a character who is usually depicted as a patriarchal tyrant, or a “tedious old fool“. Hayworth’s whimsical Polonius is genuinely comical, and brilliantly commands each scene she appears in.
There is so much to love about this Hamlet, from the gorgeous costume for Zoey Barnes‘ Targaryen Laertes, to its brilliant use of sound and lighting for the ghost scenes. However, I want to specifically mention Kaitlin Howard‘s astonishing fight direction. Choreographing a fencing match in such a restricted area is worthy of applause.
I cannot praise this production enough. As you can tell from the name of my website, Hamlet is my favourite play. It is rare to see one that is done differently and done well. Proving that working-class women can perform Shakespeare, I hope this sets a trend for future productions to follow. As Laertes says, “The woman will be out“.