On Thursday night, I watched DramaSoc’s production of Hamlet, directed by Kosi Carter, at the Drama Barn. I was intrigued by this interpretation of Shakespeare’s longest tragedy, knowing that the lead role was to be played by Katie Smith, an obvious female playing a traditional male role. Watching the interviews with the director and cast beforehand, it appeared the choice to swap the gender was done in hope of creating new dynamics in Hamlet’s relationships.
The small and cosy space of the Drama Barn was made into a simple set of two chairs and a backdrop of royal blue velvet. It opened with the low, sombre sound of a violin, as a watchman wandered the stage holding a lamp, barely visible in the smoke filling the room. The intimate space was enshrouded in smoke as we were drawn into the atmospheric intimacy. It set the scene for a tragedy about to commence, a bleak and gloomy atmosphere, fit to tell the story of what is rotten in Denmark. The appearance of the ghost, played by Max Manning, was accompanied by the intensified sound of the violin. It produced an eerie feel as the half-decomposed corpse, risen from the grave, ominously paced across the stage.
For much of the play, Hamlet acted as her traditional male self but at times played on her femininity making the character appear vulnerable and victimised by those around her. Smith also gave Hamlet a fiery side, performing her journey of revenge as strong willed and defiant, physically pushing off the males who tried to hold her back – she included elements of both male and female. This fiery femininity was shown through the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy where the female Hamlet confided in the audience, her gender allowing more emotion and passion to flow through the verse. It was performed in a more understated intimate way as if this troubled female was confiding her problems in us, a conversational intimate style taking the audience into her confidence.
With regards to the change in gender changing the dynamics of relationships, the exchanges between mother and daughter were more heart-breaking as their relationship broke down and the final reconciliation and sacrifice was a tender, sweet moment. The relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet however did not contain the same relation of intimacy and it was difficult to understand the other characters’ shock at their relationship. The traditional violence Hamlet shows towards Ophelia in their key scene was missing as it appeared more like two girls having hissy fit, a moment where the female casting was less effective than it could have been.
The proximity of the audience to the actors in this small space required increased sincerity in the display of emotions and any overt theatricality would have been seriously out of place. Of all the cast, it was Hannah Eggleton’s Gertrude that displayed a natural talent and technique for this kind of close-up acting. Gertrude was a character who had a dominant presence when on stage. Her loss of control captured the audience’s sympathy as she attempted to maintain a tough, regal stance whilst tears trickled down her vacant face. Her tremendous moments of grief were subtle, nuanced and totally believable, so much so that not only did her tears flow spontaneously but her mucus did too.
Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius, played by Jared More, which traditionally is a less interesting sub-plot, here became a rich source of dramatic intensity, almost like a play-within-the-play. As Hamlet’s tragedy went on its inevitable course, the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius followed in parallel. At times Claudius appeared almost psychotic with fear of Hamlet and Gertrude took on the role of concerned wife. Eggleton’s Gertrude gave a very strong impression of a woman torn between the conflicting demands of her husband and her son/daughter.
Of course, one of the high points of Shakespearian tragedy is the bloodshed. The plain black and white costumes became smothered in blood as the actors had their final moments. At times the final scene looked to have wandered in from a Quentin Tarantino film, blood spurting in various directions. The stage was awash with blood as each of the actors relished their dying moment whilst being covered in relish. There is an undoubtable element of humour for modern audiences in seeing a play of constant dialogue to then all swiftly come to an end in a tableau of deaths in under two minutes. With bodies dropping right, left and centre it was difficult at times to know which bloody cadaver to focus on next.
Hamlet guarantees a night of darkness, turmoil and (eventually) bloodshed, the cast and crew were faithful to the text and the spirit of the play and their hard work created an intense two hours and forty-five minutes of high drama and emotional catharsis. It may be long a journey but it is one definitely worth making, there is no question about it.
DramaSoc’s Hamlet has two more showings on Saturday and Sunday at the Drama Barn. Tickets are £5 for non-members; doors open at 7pm.