AMERICAN THEATRE: He Said, He Said, She Said: A Tale of 3 Hamlets
Carolyn Howarth and Leene Klingaman managed to crack open Hamlet in a new way by putting Shakespeare’s words into the mouths of women.
When I set out to experience a summer of Hamlets, I knew all the Hamlets would die, but I did not know how they might live and how the three productions I attended would feel seen in succession. Ever since I was 15, when I saw Mark Rylance haunt the halls of Elsinore in his pajamas, I’ve been chasing Hamlets.
I was drawn in this time by the prospect of seeing two wünderkind directors step into the fray: Robert Icke in London and Sam Gold in New York. Adding to the intrigue: Carolyn Howarth casting a woman as Hamlet at Colorado Shakespeare Festival.
Carolyn Howarth’s female-centric Hamlet, which ran through mid-August in Boulder, Colo., shared with Gold’s a certain froth. Setting the piece in the early 20th century, Howarth directed it with a breathless pace. Also like Gold, she struggled to get this buoyancy to serve the tragedy. But though the production faltered in its second half, I was with star Lenne Klingaman the entire time.
Klingaman’s Hamlet was feisty, intelligent—think Anne Shirley in a snow-covered forest. Howarth leaned on Klingaman to play Hamlet’s madness as jovial, but she managed, like Andrew Scott, to live the complex duality of Hamlet. Particularly in her “nunnery” scene with Ophelia, she knew she was being observed by Polonius (Howarth uses menacing projected shadows). Hamlet had to prove to these spies that she was mad, but being outwardly cruel to Ophelia tore her asunder.
As joyous as her comedic scenes were, Klingaman also found fine shading in Hamlet’s self-doubt. Her soliloquies were pensive self-examinations—a woman preemptively arguing with herself before anyone else could challenge her on her choices.
Indeed, Hamlet’s conflict with herself and the world just sits slightly differently when the prince is a woman. It gave a subtle, significant undertone to the production. Who knew: Gender shifts our perspective. The way people interacted with the “mad” prince, or eyerolled at her antics, or worried about her, here carried a frisson of gendered social considerations. It had the effect of happily shaking us from our expectations without undermining the work.
Laertes and Fortinbras were also women in this production, which meant gender did not cloud these personal and political rivalries; the textual intentions remained intact. That this lady Hamlet loved Ophelia similarly upended nothing in the text—all the more reason for this casual queerness. And a female Hamlet softens some of play’s woman-bashing: Hamlet arguing with her mother is less about patriarchal control and more about their relationship and their conflicts over loss and grief.
These are all welcome changes. Howarth and Klingaman managed to crack open the play in a new way for me by putting Shakespeare’s words, written for historically male characters, into the mouths of women and giving them a chance to speak.