Hamlet the ‘Dyke’ (?) and other gender bends at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

Hamlet, directed by Sarah Frankcom, at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, Saturday 20th April, 2014 (matinee)

(c) Royal Exchange, Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet (c) Royal Exchange, Manchester

In Act 1, Scene 2, Claudius chastises Hamlet for his unmanly grief at the death of his father:  “Fie, ’tis a fault to heaven,/A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,/To reason most absurd…” The manly Laertes  weeps for a moment when he hears of the watery death of his sister, then “When these are gone/ the woman will be out”(4.7.187). Reason is male, emotion is female in this binary, patriarchal world, with its vestiges of blood revenge and its masculine intellectualism. Sceptic 101, commenting on Michael Billington’s Guardian review of Frankhom’s Hamlet, in which Hamlet, Polonious (Polonia), Rosencrantz and the gravediggers are all played by women, would doubtless agree: “Just don’t see the point of women playing male roles unless it’s panto of course. Nothing is gained and the play is just messed about with. I won’t bother with this one. I’ll check back later for the feminist howls of outrage but really, this is silly tokenism.” S/he is wrong about the tokenism. The RSC have noted that ‘The role[of Hamlet] was regarded in the late 18th and 19th centuries as embodying many feminine characteristics and was frequently played by women, culminating in Sarah Bernhardt in 1899-1901.’ And Asta Nielsen’s bobbed haired 1920s silent Hamlet combined German interwar Expressionist angst with flapper sensuality in her princess disguised as a prince.

Asta Nielsen. Picture from MIT education

Asta Nielsen. Picture from MIT education

Frankhom’s production challenges traditional casting on many levels: a black Laertes enters next to a white Ophelia with no need to create complicated back-stories,  a mature black and female player king (Claire Benedict) caresses ‘his’ wife, played by a white teenaged boy from the youth theatre, but the boy isn’t a cross-dressed “boy player”, he’s just a boy, and this isn’t a transgressive affair, they are both just actors playing a role they have the skills to play. As part of Frankcom’s work to enlarge women’s role in classical theatre, five of the other traditionally male roles are played by women. I don’t think this production is simply increasing the ratio of male/female actors in principal roles, however. To me, it seems to be exploring a whole range of approaches to cross-gender casting. Gillian Bevan’s brilliant Polonia, in her heels and power suits, regenders the old courtier into an ambitious woman first minister. The antagonism between her and Gertrude edges towards rivalry; her dressing down of her love-struck daughter (and her silly romantic fantasies) is no longer about patriarchal control of Ophelia’s womb but a from-the-heart warning about the threat of a ruined reputation and career faced by any woman who gets found out. Jodie McNee’s Rosencranz, complaining that “My Lord, you once did love me” probably left the stage to update her relationship status to “it’s complicated”… At the centre of all these is Maxine Peake’s luminous Hamlet. This has had generally rave reviews, with critics noting the androgyny, liking her cropped hair and pale face to David Bowie in his Let’s Dance phase, and repeatedly underscoring that she isn’t “underscoring maleness” but is feminising Hamlet. Neither Susannah Clapp, in her Front Row review (BBC Radio 4, 17 Sept 2014) nor Michael Billington saw this as a falling off of masculinity. The production is taking the character beyond those simplistic gender binaries that Claudius and Laertes, then critics such a Goethe, held so much store by. “[Hamlet] is, […] as Goethe was first to say, part woman.  But Goethe was wrong, as Freud was wrong, to assume that woman means weakness.  To equate women with weak and tainted bodies, words, and feelings while men possess noble reason and ambitious purpose is to participate in Denmark’s disease dividing mind from body, act from feeling, man from woman”  (Leverenz, 1978, in Coyle, 1992, p133) Peake’s Hamlet, as noted by academics Peter Kirwan and Julie Raby at today’s performance, seemed extraordinarily young, almost on the cusp of pubescence, and at times her voice, its shortened Lancashire vowels sitting so much more comfortably with Shakespeare’s verse than our post 19th century received pronunciation, almost seemed to break.

In rehearsal (c) Royal Exchange

In rehearsal (c) Royal Exchange

But surely, surely, surely, everything in Peake’s performance and presentation points not to a negation of gender and sexual orientation, but a concentration of it? “To be or not to be? If a woman plays Hamlet, should she pretend to be a man or make the role female? Is she then in a lesbian relationship with Ophelia?” quips Dominic Maxwell in the Times. I’m not sure how much of a relationship there was between Hamlet and Ophelia despite the kissing on the lips, but there was certainly a large contingent of lesbians in the audience, some of whom, like me, could hardly be distinguished from our heterosexual neighbours, but the majority of whom looked, well, rather similar to Maxine Peake’s Hamlet. The lace-ups, the the sports bra that showed through the back of her dress shirt, the loose slacks that had a touch of the Night Watch costume department about them, the cropped locks and the touch of lipstick all suggest a Diva fashion shoot to me.  And a conscious courting of the pink pound. Cavendish’s review, also available in full here, is the only review so far in one of the big papers that has begun to address this. “Her Hamlet, [Peake] says, is ‘born a woman and has decided to take on the mantle of a man’. As we talk in her lunch break from rehearsals, she refers to her character interchangeably as ‘he’ or ‘she’. She looks dashing and androgynous, her hair dyed blonde, cropped and quiffed into mid-period Bowie. ‘We’ve reimagined Wittenberg, where Hamlet studied,’ she says, ‘as Eighties Berlin or New York Greenwich Village.'” There is nothing more explicit about why she has taken on a mantle of a man. The Royal Exchange has some interesting materials on its website, however. This is a “Hamlet for now, a Hamlet for Manchester” it says. Its Key Stage 4 and 5 resources for schools linked to this production include a Trans Awareness activity. The critics may be  out on whether Peake’s Hamlet is male or female, straight or gay, cis or trans. Either way, this Hamlet is decidedly queer, and it seems queer that nobody has  really written about it. (Since posting this, Mark Lawson HAS written about what he sees as ‘the perils of cross-gender casting’ in The Guardian – although I’m not convinced by his ‘perils’ in an otherwise interesting article!) Production photos available here. flyer Leverenz, David (1978) ‘The Woman in Hamlet: An interpersonal View’ in Martin Coyle, ed., (1992) New Casebooks: Hamlet Basingstoke and London: Macmillan

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Press Release – The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre (Gdański Teatr Szekspirowski): 19 September 2014

Gdansk logo

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre in June 2014 with the roof in the open position. (c) Dobrochna Surajewska

Theatre Website and Festival Website (click on Union Jack icon for English translations)

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

On the 19th September 2014 the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place. It is one of the most unusual venues in the world and the only modern theatre building with an opening roof that allows the staging of plays in daylight, in the tradition of the Renaissance. 

This is an exceptional event as the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre is the only dedicated theatre building that has been constructed in Poland for almost forty years. Therefore the Grand Opening ceremony will gather many notable persons from the world of culture and business, as well as government and local authorities.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The Fencing School is thought to be modelled on the Fortune Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse in London, as shown in this engraving by Dutch artist Peter Willer from the second half of the seventeenth century. The so-called ‘New Fencing School’ was constructed by Flemish craftsman Jakob van Blocke in 1635. No information has been preserved about the earlier ‘Old Fencing School’, built circa 1610 where English travelling actors performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

The idea of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre, a modern reconstruction of the Elizabethan-style Gdańsk playhouse, where English travelling actors performed in the seventeenth century, was born under the patronage of HRH Charles, Prince of Wales. Other notable supporters of the project include renowned Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, celebrated British theatre director Sir Peter Hall and many leading British and Polish actors, among them Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Allan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Krystyna Janda, Jerzy Stuhr, and many others.

Because the building cannot accommodate all the guests we would like to invite, the Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will take place in two stages: a closed ceremony will take place inside the theatre with VIPs, sponsors, foreign guests and journalists. All other festivities will take place outside the building for other guests wishing to take part in the celebrations. 

The Grand Opening of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will start in the evening, at 8.30 pm. It will begin with a celebratory performance outside the Theatre that will last approximately 30 minutes. It will

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

The interior of The Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre configured with the Italian box stage. (c) ASP Obiektywni.

include a Spanish fencing show and a performance of aerial acrobatics. The performance will close with a march of all the spectators, led by the fencers and actors, through the Theatre’s Main Hall, where they will be welcomed by Shakespearean characters. 

The design of the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre by renowned Italian architect Renato Rizzi has been recognised as one of most interesting architectural projects of the twenty–first century. The outside brick construction, reminiscent of Gdansk’s Gothic churches, contains a wooden, early modern playhouse interior, and is thus an architectural dialogue with the building’s past. Rizzi’s design uses the seventeenth century Fencing School in Gdansk – said to be the first public theatre in Poland – as its inspiration. At the same time the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre provides a real glimpse into the future of theatre

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

The public opening ceremony of the roof structure as part of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth which took place 23 April 2014. (c) Rafał Malko

design with its unique architectural and technologically advanced elements – created with daring and ambition – such as the opening roof which provides daylight during performances and a retractable modular stage design providing both an Italian box stage and Elizabethan thrust stage. 

The Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre will become a vibrant centre for culture and the arts. Its forthcoming programme of events will include: a series of week-long events celebrating European culture (starting with the British Week from 20 until 26 September), a series of month-long events devoted to Polish theatre, an extensive educational series for primary and secondary schools, and finally the annual International Shakespeare Festival, currently in its eighteenth year, which will take place from 27 September until 5 October 2014. 

The distinctive combination of historical tradition and modernity makes the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theatre not only a unique tourist attraction but also a new international cultural platform dedicated to theatre innovation and artistic creativity.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska

London Shakespeare Centre, King’s College London

aleksandra.sakowska@kcl.ac.uk

07774553044

 

or

Magdalena Hajdysz

Press Office, Poland

rzecznik@teatrszekspirowski.pl

tel.: +48 691 08 22 77