“Frailty, thy name is woman!” Not so in The Progress Theatre’s October production of Hamlet, which takes this, one of the most famous lines, from one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies and turns it on its head.
Director Aidan Moran’s production puts a woman front and centre with Megan Turnell as Hamlet. She’s the prince of Denmark plagued by the ghost of her father and encouraged to avenge his murder at the hands of his brother Claudio.
This isn’t the first production to see a woman in the lead role, Maxine Peake took on the prince for the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2014. But unlike that performance, where Peake played a man, here Turnell is a distinctly female Hamlet. He becomes she, son becomes daughter.
Moran told us he wanted to make sure a female Hamlet wasn’t seen as a gimmick or crow-barred in, something to distract from the deep emotion at the heart of the production. And so he has built a world with a strong female presence. Here, Hamlet’s friends Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are all female, as is the charming troupe of travelling players, who also double as guards.
Their kingdom may not be entirely gender neutral as the programme suggests (Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is still the lesser, widowed queen to brother-in-law and second husband Claudio’s king, for example), but there is a vibrant, believable sphere of strong, funny women revolving around the court of Elsinore.
As Hamlet, Turnell brings a raw and nimble energy. At times she is impish and playful, but at others gentle and emotional. Here, Hamlet isn’t just raging with a masculine drive, although that does appear too. She is soft when spurning lover Ophelia, and pained and dragged under by the weight of maternal betrayal.
During the production process, Moran encouraged the cast to develop their own backstories for these new female takes on Shakespeare’s most well known characters. Izzy Hayden and Chloe Stoakes as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern went all out, imagining their university days in Wittenberg spent as part of a gigging rock band, with Hamlet as the lead singer. It’s reflected in their punky aesthetic, which is all dark kohl eyeliner, leather and gold.
That depth of character development also shows in the ease with which these friends (along with Kate Shaw as Horatio) respond to each other. Whole meanings and emotions pass between looks and eyebrow raises among the group. Chloe Stoakes as Guildenstern in particular brings many a chuckle with her wide-eyed looks of bafflement.
More light relief comes from Richard Tripp as the flustering, blustering Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain and father to Ophelia and Laertes. Our audience were soon chuckling at his fussy delivery and pigeon-chested pomposity. Later, Mikhail Franklin beckons more waves of laughter as First Gravedigger, who almost manages to upstage the famous ‘alas poor Yorick speech’ with a particularly humorous bit of drumming on skeletons.
Set design invokes the regal Elsinore Castle with a stripped down, but versatile medieval wood cabin style, allowing the players to traverse battlements and cower in cupboards with a credible ease. It’s bolstered by an ethereal soundscape of wind and strings, which draws us into Hamlet’s nervy, grief-stricken mindset.
As well as gender, this production highlights that sense of grief and depression. Tanvi Virmani tugs at our sympathy as Ophelia ridden with madness, a character I’ve been frustrated by in the past. Rigid and constrained in her courtly role at the start (almost literally, in a bandage-like silk gown) she becomes wild and dishevelled in grief for her father. Muttering, humming to herself and distracted, Virmani shows an Ophelia trapped by her own mind as much as her environment.
As with the strongest of productions, here the final two acts draw us down into Hamlet’s mental anguish. It all culminates in a ferocious sword fight, bristling with anxiety and ably choreographed by fight coordinator Caroline Stewart. You probably already know by now, it doesn’t end well.
Taking on Shakespeare’s most well-known, and arguably, most well-loved play is a daunting task. But Moran has drawn something exciting and new from the most familiar of texts. The entire cast are captivating to watch and kept us gripped for the two and a half hour run time, well abridged from the original four hour play.
Progress Theatre have made sure the women in this production of Hamlet are not frail. They are pained, they are inspired, they are modern. Go and see their bold take on one of the world’s greatest plays.