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Hamlet

"We're not asking the audience to forget that I'm a woman"

In the first of a series of essays, actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson takes you deep into the making of Bell Shakespeare's first female Hamlet.

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Show: Hamlet
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Making Hamlet: Short cuts to the role

Date: 11 Feb 2020
I just got my Hamlet haircut. They’ve cut a lot off.

I normally have hair past my shoulders. Now I’ve got a ‘boy’s haircut’. It’s not a buzzcut or short back-and-sides or anything like that. This production is set in the 1960s, so we’ve just gone for Beatles, Mick Jagger kind of thing.

There is a little bit of length in the front which, depending on how I comb it, keeps it versatile. When I step out of the role, it can still look kind of feminine.

But when I’m in the role it’s going to go all over the place anyway because I’m fencing and sweating and changing clothes. I just need it to be really easy and hassle-free. I’m quite excited about it. It’s going to help me along with the character building. It’ll make my job a little easier.

I haven’t had such a dramatic physical change for a role before.

Normally, I start somewhere in the body. My process is usually pretty physical. For me, pre-rehearsals are about how my character moves through space and trying to figure out where the character leads from in their body, where they carry their weight. That’s my instinct in terms of a starting-off point because I came to acting from a dance background. I find it easier to connect with a character through the body.

I never danced professionally, but I just was one of those kids… I did 16 years of dance as I was growing up, everything from ballet to contemporary to jazz. It wasn’t until I discovered drama at high school that I started shifting my focus.

But in terms of creative expression, I’m going to have a lifelong adoration of dance and envy for those who were able to carry it through because they have the talent that I just did not have.

In this production of Hamlet, Hamlet is a ‘he’, as written and I’m playing that male role.

It’s about striking that balance between putting the audience at ease in terms of signifiers – the things that let them think, ‘Oh, okay. I think I can imagine this person is male, that’s fine. I can stop thinking about that and just watch the play’ – and not letting it stray into drag or just dressing up as a man.

We’re not asking the audience to forget that I’m a woman. I’m not putting on a beard or anything like that. What Pete Evans was able to find with Kate Mulvany for Richard 3 was really interesting to me: a dual image that the audience was quite happy to accept. It was ‘OK, we get it. She’s presenting as a man. She’s a female actor. Let’s get on with the play’.

So my Hamlet sits in a fairly androgynous place, which I think he already sits in anyway. Things are more interesting when they’re not completely tied down.

I’ve been lucky to be able to think about the role for a long time.

I was working on The Miser and during our Sydney season, Pete asked if he could see me for an hour. He wanted me to take a look at Hamlet’s monologue, “rogue and peasant slave …”

Honestly, I thought he was just asking me to help out with an audition or something. We worked on it for about an hour and he was very honest. He just said, you know, we’re programming Hamlet for next year and we’re interested in a female Hamlet. Then he asked me for my thoughts on Hamlet and if I felt any connection with the text and then, whether I would be interested in doing it.

It was probably about as close to a job offer, as I’ve ever had.

I definitely didn’t freak out.

I’m always really interested in interrogations of gender and I don’t think there’s anything particularly new or hugely controversial in having a female Hamlet.

I think that’s the arts degree major in me. I have seen Hamlet performed professionally, I think, maybe four or five times and I’ve always loved it. It’s different every time. Everyone is a completely different Hamlet.

Interview by Elissa Blake

Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet plays in The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, from February 29

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