Hamlet is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s masterpiece, one of the most widely written about works in Western culture. Working with the text, and inhabiting the world of Hamlet, has taken me on a marvellous journey of discovery.
Key for me has been the search for meaning in a world that increasingly suggests that it can provide nothing of the sort. Rather than offering answers, the play asks questions of us, and provokes us to ask our own questions. Perhaps it is this that allows the play to speak to everyone, in every age.
One of my first questions on approaching the play was, of course, who will play Hamlet? Helen Millar was very quickly in my thoughts as an actor who could bring a full range of depth and complexity to the role. I was not seeking a female Hamlet in particular, it’s rather that my ideal actor turned out to be a woman.
I began to read the play with the concept of a female Hamlet in mind, and I found that I was hearing the famous lines as though for the first time. Everything is reframed with a woman in the role, the casting seems to enhance the plays themes of identity, mortality and free will.
There is, in fact, a rich history of women playing Hamlet. On YouTube you can find footage of the renowned Sarah Bernhardt in a production of the play in 1899.
Helen and I decided that her Hamlet was a women who had chosen to live as a man in order to be accepted as a political power, a choice that excited us both for its impact on the text, highlighting Gertrude’s lack of power, emphasising Hamlet as an outsider, and offering so many opportunities for contemporary reflections on the restrictions of gender roles within society. Our Elsinore is a restrictive, hierarchical society. Within the walls of Elsinore anything unacceptable is repressed or banished, only to emerge later, or elsewhere, in a new, more rotten form. It is this rot that Hamlet is compelled to explore, becoming as uncertain of her/his own truth and identity as she/he is of others.
At the time of writing I have just completed a few glorious days of exploration with the cast, a hugely talented group, rich in ideas and insights. We have further rehearsals in London before our work moves into Fort Lovrijenac. Having directed Twelfth Night here last year, I know that the fort will bring its own layer of resonance to the production. It is a real privilege to be staging Hamlet at this very special venue, and we look forward to bringing Hamlet’s quest through the intrigues of Elsinore to life within its walls.