7 April 2022

Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet remains a tragedy for our times

| Ian Bushnell
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Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet

Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman.

A woman is playing Hamlet. Get over it.

Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson, who brings the melancholy Dane to the Canberra Theatre stage for a 10-day run with Bell Shakespeare, relegates the gender issue to background noise.

She says playing a male character is about as relevant as Australians playing Danish people.

“We’re not playing the Princess of Denmark; I’m just an actor that [director] Pete [Evans] wanted to work with because we have worked together before,” Gordon-Anderson says.

“He wasn’t certain that he wanted to cast a woman as Hamlet and it would be a big statement. He knew Bell were putting on Hamlet and he wanted to find an actor who would work well in that role.”

She says one of the great things about theatre is that it demands audiences use their imaginations.

And after all Shakespearian gender-bending has been going on for a long time.

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Not that she can entirely escape Hamlet’s unsurprising misogynous cultural setting and his complicated relationship with women; something that took her into some disturbing but important research about toxic masculinity and “what it is to be a man and a leader in patriarchial societies”.

“It’s not a focus but it’s an interesting element that my casting brings to the fore in a slightly different way than if I was a male actor,” she says.

Hamlet has been her biggest acting challenge to date. While she says it was at times a dark and troubling process getting to know him, it has also been one of the most positive experiences she has ever had, especially spending time with the poetry and philosophy of the work.

Her Hamlet is also a profoundly loving character who gets hurt and betrayed easily because he has invested so much in his personal relationships.

“He wants to be a good person, to do the noble thing; in fact he’s obsessed with it,” Gordon-Anderson says. “He’s constantly assessing what it is to be a good son, lover and friend.”

Asked whether Hamlet has particular contemporary resonance with the inner challenges that young people face these days, she says there has to be a reason we keep coming back to these plays.

“It’s so well written and such an amazing articulation of a young person’s struggle to be understood, trying to grapple with the scope of feelings, responsibility of duty of family, of life,” Gordon-Anderson says.

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Halfway through the tour, she feels like she is only at the very beginning of finding this man and play.

“I suspect I will always feel there is much more work to be done,” says Gordon-Anderson, who admits to the daunting nature of taking on such a role.

But in a way the quality of the writing makes it easy.

“You just have to gather the courage to step out and say your first line; from there it’s like you’ve just hopped on to a train and it will take you along with it,” she says.

The production comes to Canberra after initial rave reviews in 2020 before COVID-19 shutdowns put it on ice for two years.

Evans reimagines it for contemporary audiences, transporting them to a wintery Denmark in the 1960s.

“Hamlet is an astonishing work of art, imbued with both comedy and tragedy, love and loss and was the first work Bell Shakespeare ever staged,” he says.

“My hope is we can all find ourselves in the ideas of this play. Not the cultural specificity, not in the period it was written or the period of the production, but in the experience of longing, of grief, of delight, of pain, of being a parent, of being a child and, perhaps, if I may be so bold, of being.”

Bell Shakespeare founding artistic director John Bell’s daughter Lucy Bell will take up the role of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.

Hamlet is at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre from 7 to 16 April 2022. Tickets are available here.

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