The plays of William Shakespeare have been subject to countless re-interpretations. From characters, to setting, to dialogue, no element has escaped scrutiny.
Some versions remain faithful to the originals, but others alter the content so drastically that the source material is nearly unrecognizable.
Director David MacPherson’s presentation of Hamlet, opening tonight (July 6) at the Shakespeare In the Summer festival, falls somewhere in the middle. In this rendition, the Prince of Denmark is portrayed as a woman.
“There are so many lines and soliloquies and phrases that are so familiar,” MacPherson said. “Making Hamlet a woman brings new things to the story and makes people look at the relationships differently.”
Hamlet’s relationships with his father, mother, stepfather and even his lover, Ophelia, are all profoundly altered by having a woman in the central role. What’s more, the impact those relationships have on Hamlet’s motives have given the play a number of new avenues to explore.
“We kind of escape a bit of the trap of treating the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) as sexually charged,” MacPherson said. “This way we can step back from that and see what the mother did and why she did it and why she married so quickly.”
It’s one of several instances where MacPherson has taken a step back from the more sensational elements of the story in favour of a more thought-provoking approach.
The honour of playing the now-female Dane has been handed to Melissa Blank, who has previously appeared in Shakespeare In the Summer productions of Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew.
“I’ve always said that if there was one very special Shakespeare role to play, it would be this one,” Blank said. “I think the beauty of the character is that the struggles this person goes through are so universal. It’s the human struggle, the human condition – and a lot of what Hamlet thinks and talks about is true for everyone.”
Though this isn’t the first time Hamlet has been envisioned as female – legendary British actor Sarah Bernhardt is perhaps the most famous woman to play the role – it’s a twist Blank looks forward to sharing with the audience.
“Some people had a bit of a question mark on their face when they heard that I’m playing Hamlet,” she said. “I’m excited for them to see it and see how well it works.”
Hamlet is one of two offerings being held at the outdoor venue at Camosun College near the Lansdowne Road parking entrance.
A Comedy of Errors opens tomorrow (July 7). Tickets are $22 for adults, $16 for students and seniors. Full schedule and ticket information is available at www.vicshakespeare.com.