“the lion’s part”: Midsommer, Solstice, and Shakespeare Gender Parity

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about identity parity in Shakespeare performance. This is in part because of recent articles critiquing Hollywood whitewashing, which in actuality negatively affects box office numbers. (For recent coverage, see the Los Angeles Times and Business Insider.) This is in part because I have been seeing a great deal of theatre interested in the range of implications available when you might choose to play a character against their biological-gender identification. For example, when Hotspur is female-identifying in the Henry IV plays, as in the case at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, the competing reports of her death at the start of part two resonates with a very different parental agony and pathos. Or, when Aeneas is played by and as a woman, such as is the case of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Troilus and Cressida, that rape is a necessary war strategy becomes newly apparent. But is this kind of parity necessarily true across the industry?

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Ham(let)in’ it up

One summer my  father decided it would be a good idea to raise a commercial pig. My mom, being a high school English teacher, named her Ophelia–she thought the pun on Hamlet‘s girlfriend was cute. We called her Ophie for short. She was a lot of fun. I do not tell you this story for any other reason than to say that, as blasphemous as this may be, I am getting sick of Hamlet. There has been sparse review of PBS’ most recent adaptation of this play, which aired about two weeks ago and can still be viewed online.

Of those few substantive reviews, people generally seem to be undecided about former Dr. Who-star David Tennant’s performance. Kenneth Branagh, despite his contributions, has trained us to want something big and gratuitous from the Bard in film–turning Americans into consumers of Shakespeare only if it is about his particular spokesman, Branagh himself. (on a side note, Branagh was recently tapped to be the head director for the upcoming super-hero movie Thor.) While across the board there seems to be appreciation for Patrick Stewart’s shaded and sinister double duty at the Ghost and Claudius, it seems a love-or-hate situation regarding Tennant. There have been several cute quips, including from the LA Times, about this film as a “kind of sci-fi super-summit.” Undoubtedly the PBS production will benefit in DVD sales from their personal brands as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company pedigree.

Hamlet only gets harder and harder to put on film. There seems to be one or two adaptations every decade, and because many of the roles are so coveted, the field is a bit full of titans: Branagh for the purists, the under appreciated historical Mel Gibson rendition produced by Playboy, Olivier set the actors’ bar in the ’40s, and the perennial Derek Jacobi to list a few. Stewart’s performance is convincing but he seems a bit lost in his role. He has moments so sinister it seems like he is squaring off Magneto, and other moments he brings a caring sense of humanity to Claudius unseen before. But these stark dimensions to Claudius were confusing rather than giving him a multifaceted honesty–they just didn’t seem to sync up.

Polonius is really perfect; the most difficult scene is always Ophelia’s first with her father. A potentially very cruel Polonius on the page, that character is sometimes hard to reconcile the with fact that Ophelia’s insanity is triggered by his death, implying some kind of loving relationship between father and daughter. Oliver Ford Davies presents the most truthful and balanced depiction of their relationship I have seen yet. This may be due to the fact that the play as a whole invests less in the past romantic relationship of Ophelia and Hamlet, a direct reversal from the seminal Branagh adaptation.

Tennant is coming in with a lot of fresh baggage, having just finished his successful role as Dr. Who. The infamous “to be or not to” speech has perhaps a little more baggage to manage. I really enjoy the first half of his delivery of it. The lack of zoom camera lenses and under-cutting angles allows the audience to connect with psychological realism that Branagh’s grandiose tends to over shoot. I was surprised that Tennant didn’t do more with the manic element of Hamlet, something he was particularly noted for as Dr. Who. Perhaps due to his near-psychotic blue eyes, Mel Gibson’s depiction of manic madness is the only attempt I have ever fully bought into. Overall, the tone of the work is subtle and tempered, where no theme or issue sings out above the rest.

While I appreciate the emphasis here on a cohesive powerful ensemble performance, the lack of thematic emphasis is a little tragic in and of itself; there is just so much crazy, madness, ghosts, and heartbreak going on. Also, I felt the film suffered from the British stylized flattening effect, which I think was a choice made in an effort to further force performances to stand on their merits. This is film however, and if you are going to build magnificent sets and gesture towards camera play, I do not see the point in undercutting those technical elements. The individual performances do ring out, each very thoughtful and expressing each actors knowledge of their character. This well-pitched cast is especially evident in the ancillary characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Grave Digger. One of the greater benefits of this ensemble is that you really comprehend what each member’s purpose is in the story arch.

Despite all of these merits, the entire time I was plagued by one question: Do we really need another Hamlet? Community and professional theaters keep this one in continuous rotation. Jude Law just finished a run on Broadway as the lead, and has several Tony nominations to show for it. There seems to be a flooded market in the last four decades, and I just feel that this poor playtext needs a little room and time to breathe before attempts to “re-imagine” it for the screen begin again. Shakespeare did write more than thirty plays, some of which I would argue are far more cinematic than the ever-popular Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. It is slowly coming to the fore that other dramatists were writing in the same period and have texts equally if not better suited for the screen, The Revenger’s Tragedy and Edward II to name a few. In this film I was looking for something different, radical or not, about the prince of Denmark and didn’t get it. Nothing wrong with stellar ensemble performances–something the industry is less and less suited to handle–but I could do with one less predictable Dane.