With awards and accolades trailing in her wake and an impressive portfolio under her belt, director Amy Leach is a worthy match for tackling Hamlet head-on. Hers is an innovative twenty-first century Hamlet, that is not only accessible to audiences, but cutting and raw.
In Leach’s production, Hamlet, Horatio and Polonius are women. Hamlet and Ophelia are same-sex lovers. While it is not new for Hamlet to be played by a woman – apparently actor Sarah Bernhardt played the role as far back as the nineteenth century – historically female actors have played the role as men. Here, Tessa Parr does no such thing; her Hamlet is unashamedly feminine. She brings a freshness to the character that makes her tragic and very relatable.
Parr’s Hamlet is a young student who is simply overridden with grief for her dead father. Her mother does not seem to care about her husband’s death, and no-one else at court seems to have noticed the change. This is a Hamlet who is misunderstood rather than insane. Parr comes across as a young person struggling with intense depression and over the course of the play, she just pushes it further and further, to the extent that even her murder of Polonius, does not appear to be an act of malice, but rather one born out of a great emotional struggle that has driven her to lash out wildly and irresponsibly. Her hatred of Claudius is understandable, and her mood swings perfectly natural. Parr is a breathing, human Hamlet, whose performance of the role is praiseworthy.
While Parr’s Hamlet anchors the play, the performance is fleshed out and stretched by the rest of the ensemble. Horatio and Rosencrantz are played with incredible care and empathy, which give emotional depth to their smaller roles. I am particularly impressed by the warmth that radiates from Gertrude, whose motherly and empathetic characterisation creates an interesting dynamic with her misunderstanding of Hamlet. She is ignorant of Claudius’ murder, struggling with the decline of her child, and overwhelmed by Ophelia’s madness and Polonius’ death. Perhaps the overarching feel of all of the characterisations in this production is they are all victims. Simona Bitmate’s Ophelia is archetypal in this respect. Her experience is all tragedy. Even Joe Alessi’s Claudius feels sorry for himself. In a play like Hamlet, this accessibility to the characters makes the action all the more gut-wrenching.
Leach’s production is just perfect in its human imperfection. The set, the sound, the lights and the costumes all give a sense of where you are and what is going on without being obtrusive. Every element is focused, and the result is a piece of theatre that is accessible for everyone. I understand every word and am utterly lost in the action. I am just grateful for the gravedigger, who brings a little bit of lightness in a thoroughly horrifying show.
Hamlet is playing until 30 March. For more information and tickets, visit the Leeds Playhouse website.