I was delighted to be invited to the Press Night of Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse on Tuesday. It’s the first production I’ve seen in the pop-up theatre as The Playhouse undergoes its major redevelopment.

Outside the pop-up theatre

Hamlet isn’t my favourite Shakespeare play – I can’t help but feel the Bard dug himself into a hole and decided the easiest way to end things would be to just kill everyone off – but as it’s been at least a decade since I last saw the play performed (with Ed Stoppard in the eponymous role) I was looking forward to watching it.

The show did not disappoint. Here are 9 thoughts I had on Leeds Playhouse’s Hamlet, directed by Amy Leach.

  1. The wordless, opening scene was a great introduction. Rather than launching straight in to a bit of ghost watching, we actually see Hamlet receive the devastating news about her father’s death, and what her life was like just before and after then. As one of Shakespeare’s wordier plays, it was actually really effective to have a speechless scene to introduce the action.
  2. Re-gendering some of the roles is absolutely everything and nothing. This production doesn’t just have women playing some of the main characters of the play; it has women playing the roles as female characters. Hamlet, Polonius and Horatio are all female in this production and although I’d expected my feminist brain to be constantly questioning what effect this has on the play (what about the Freudian relationship with Queen Gertrude? Does this change how we view the treatment of Ophelia?) I actually didn’t think about any of it as I was watching the show – it just seemed so natural.
  3. Tessa Parr is absolutely brilliant as Hamlet. I’ve previously not been much of a fan of the character Hamlet yet the way Tessa portrays the role is actually quite endearing. She did a wonderful job of seamlessly switching between melancholic, impertinent and manic.
  4. Susan Twist is an excellent Polonius. I know Hamlet gets the great soliloquies, but I’ve always thought Polonius has the best lines in the play. Susan Twist delivered them superbly and it made me wonder why Polonius isn’t played as a woman more often. The stereotypical role of busybody mother actually works very well. Simona Bitmate also made a brilliant Ophelia.
  5. The music worked really well. It was eerie, atmospheric and suitably jarring. Very appropriate for when something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
  6. The set was simple but effective. Set out on two levels (three if you count the bit behind?) the actors made great use of the stage. I particularly liked the bit when the Court was watching the play (what with the play being the thing and all that).
  7. The costumes were suitably vague and timeless. I wasn’t actually sure what era this production was supposed to be set in (which didn’t matter at all). The costumes sometimes seemed to be inspired by the 70s, but then also felt very 90s, and sometimes contemporary. I liked Gertrude’s outfits in particular – you can’t beat a wide trouser leg for an elegant, queenly look.
  8. It was fast paced. Okay, so I admit – I was a little bit put off by the idea of watching Hamlet as it’s Shakespeare’s longest play, but this production ran at 70 minutes for the first half, and 60 for the second. I can manage that!
  9. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything. I got so frustrated when studying Shakespeare at school and later at university when I didn’t understand every word. I think I’ve finally matured enough (check me out) to realise that you don’t need to understand all the words – you either get the general gist from the wider context, or you can just sit back and enjoy other parts of the play, like the costumes or scenery.
Hamlet shaking Ophelia
Simona Bitmate (Ophelia) and Tessa Parr (Hamlet) in Hamlet at Leeds Playhouse. Photography by David Lindsay.

I thought this was a refreshing and exciting production. Well done to all involved!

I will leave you with this gem of a quiz I came across whilst Googling about Hamlet. Sorting the characters from Hamlet into Hogwarts houses.”