“Only a woman can play Hamlet”
Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress who played the role in 1899, famously said, “Only women can play Hamlet.”
She was praised in France for her Hamlet but when she took the role to London, she was pretty much torn apart by the critics. One of them said, “there was no more poetry in her Hamlet than there is milk in a male tiger.”
That was a century ago and a lot has changed. But when I talk to people about the production, the first question is often something like, “Oh, do you think you can play Hamlet?”
Even now, it’s still a question for some people, still something we’re trying to wrap our heads around.
We haven’t seen Hamlet played by a woman on main stages in Sydney, as far as I can recall.
Sydney Theatre Company did an education program production with Sophie Ross in the role in 2011, but a programmed mainstage Hamlet? I certainly haven’t seen one.
Each time I’ve seen Hamlet on stage, I’m struck by how much sadness there is.
I remember seeing Ewen Leslie play Hamlet at Belvoir. He’d stepped in to cover Toby Schmitz and I remember being struck by the weight of the grief that he brought to the role. I felt similarly when I saw Josh McConville do it for Bell Shakespeare.
It’s something I have kept in the back of my mind ever since. It’s easy to forget that this is a play about a grieving man. He’s not just musing on life and death. He’s grieving the death of his father but he’s been told it’s unmanly. He’s been told if he doesn’t snap out of it quickly, he’ll be punished. He’s under intense pressure to carry his grief in a socially respectable way.
I’ve watched a few of the movie Hamlets.
There’s a really amazing German film called Hamlet: The Drama of Vengeance, made in the early 1920s in Germany. Hamlet was played by a woman [Danish silent film star Asta Nielson]. But the filmmakers gave it a bit of a plot twist – that Hamlet’s parents had one child only and it was a girl, but Hamlet’s father was killed in battle.
So the Queen very quickly announced to the Danish kingdom that it was a boy and she raised the girl as a boy. Everyone believes Hamlet is a boy until on his deathbed, when it’s revealed that Hamlet … is a woman! It’s a really interesting take on the story.
I thought I better watch the Laurence Olivier version because I know a lot of people will ask me about it. I don’t mind seeing what’s gone before. I feel confident that I can still do my own thing.
So Olivier, Branagh, Mel Gibson, snippets of David Tennant … But again, I took them all with a grain of salt. I can appreciate an interesting choice but I don’t take anything on board. Once I started rehearsal though, I wasn’t in a space where I would be happy to watch other people’s choices – especially the first couple of weeks. It’s just such fertile ground for me and my own discoveries. I want it to be all based on my own impulses and the rest of the ensemble rather than informed by choices in other people’s work.
Doing the research
I found out I had the role in April 2019 and that’s given me the benefit of time. I’ve been able to slowly and gently make my way through the research side of things and get my head around different ideas.
I borrowed a friend’s university login details and trawled various academic databases online. There is a wealth of information, some of it useful, some not so much. There are a lot of psychoanalytical readings of the text, but they’re of limited use to me. But it’s interesting to see that so many academics lean into the relationship between Hamlet and his mother.
I’ve also had the time to let that go because I don’t want it to inform too much of what I do in the rehearsal room. Since Christmas, I’ve been pretty much working only on the text.
Everything becomes about the text and learning – really learning – those soliloquies back to front, so they don’t feel like another person’s words anymore.
I was paralysed with fear for a couple of months, especially before it was announced I had the role.
Leading up to that point, I felt like I had this big secret, and only my nearest and dearest knew. It felt so momentous. I couldn’t even start to do any work on the play.
But once we started auditioning for Ophelia and some of the other major roles, word started getting out to agents and members of the industry. People would give me a wink-wink nudge-nudge, which was gorgeous, actually.
Everyone has been so excited and sharing their excitement with me about this, which has been so heartening and supportive. But at the same time, it’s really hard not to feel the pressure that comes with that, the ‘oh god, don’t fuck it up’.
When we started rehearsing, Pete Evans chose to look at some of the biggest scenes first. We launched straight into Hamlet and Ophelia’s “get thee to a nunnery scene”, and then Hamlet and Gertrude. It was good, like ripping off the Band Aid quickly. You can make your mistakes and then when you come back to it, the scenes don’t seem as intimidating as they might have, which I’m really grateful for.
Fight director Nigel Poulton had me and Jack Crumlin, who plays Laertes, in here full-time for a week just working on fencing technique. And then Jack and I were able, in our own time over the Christmas break, to just keep developing, developing, developing that technique and build up the muscles required.
Now, Jack and I are in here early for an hour every day, fencing. It’s going to be spectacular. You don’t have to shy away from anything or go easy just because Hamlet is being played by a woman.
You can make it bigger and bolder and more cutthroat than ever before, which I’m really excited about.
Interviewed by Elissa Blake
Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays in The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House from February 29