I honestly did not think I would see a woman play Hamlet in a major production in New York City.
I was so convinced of this that when I heard a woman was playing Hamlet in Colorado three years ago I flew there just for the weekend to see it assuming I would never get a chance to see any woman play this closer to home.
New York has a tendency to offer up these big meaty classic male roles every couple of years to male celebrities but the last major NYC professional production with a woman as Hamlet that I can find was Diane Venora in 1982 at the Public Theater. In 1982, I was in second grade and unaware Hamlet existed. It really shouldn’t have taken nearly 40 years for a another one.
The production, currently playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse, comes from the Gate Theatre Dublin and stars Ruth Negga. That she is a biracial woman makes this another first for New York City (as far as I know). My fave Zainab Jah played it in Philadelphia and it’s clear a number of professional productions outside New York City cast women as Hamlet. Maybe the NYC theater establishment needs to do some soul searching, when even this production is an import and not homegrown.
Anyway….Negga plays Hamlet as a man (as Venora did before her). In a black pantsuit or black jeans with hair closely cropped, using he/him pronouns, she is the Prince of Denmark. Carolyn Howarth’s Colorado production changed Hamlet’s gender. Frankly, I liked how the text shifted when the character was played as a woman–it made me think about the character’s voice within the play so differently. It was a little disappointing that here director Yaël Farber plays this so straight.
And in fact, straight in all aspects. In moments, I thought Negga read non-binary. I waited with anticipation for the production to run with that, but it does not.
It is instead a very traditional production with some beautiful creative elements, but it also fails to deliver emotionally 100% of the time.
Farber’s production is outwardly elegant and well-paced, with a heavy dose of the ecclesiastical and morose. It opens with billowing clouds of incense (Catholic or high church Protestant to my religious experiences and/or nose). There are also Beckettian figures with heavy eyeliner and bowler hats who haunt the space and sing dirges, acting as facilitators of events, stagehands, the players within the play, and the gravediggers.
The set is made up of a series of doors making Denmark look like a prison filled with infinite choices but nowhere to go–a great visual and one of the sharper aspects of the production. There are also some visual concepts that don’t work fully in their execution (more on that later).
Negga is Buster Keaton-esque–expressive without words with much of her performance pouring from her eyes. With a desperately searching gaze and sagging with grief, she bears Hamlet’s melancholy with a full-bodied ache. She ravishes Ophelia with kisses like she is drowning and gasping for breath. Their intimacy is real and tender.
Negga also sparkles when plotting against Hamlet’s uncle-father–a Chiclet smile of deviousness and a glint in her eyes of plotting. But as Hamlet’s choices and mistakes add up, Negga does not find richer complications in her aspect. She starts off strong but is more successful with darkness than with the manic, caffeinated insanity she adopts.
Negga’s Hamlet acts impulsively and ruminates little. Hamlet before and after Polonius’s murder reads as largely unchanged—Negga plays it as having a frantic bad day at the start that just got a little worse, with the vibe of “Fuck, what do I do with this corpse now.” She garnered some laughs from the audience in moments that did not seem like they were played for humor.
The production also overdoes it sometimes. A dramatic red curtain drop with a blood red marriage bed with Gertrude posed on it like she is on the cross looks hammy. For a moment, you expect Joan Crawford to enter to chew some scenery with it.
Farber also pushes the action into the audience which did not work in this particular space. Scenes took place on a ramp running up the left side of the audience but the audience wasn’t always cued to look over there or had to go searching for where the voices were coming from.
The mousetrap scene is set with Claudius and Gertrude and their entourage seated mid-audience. For me, I had to swing my whole body around and look upwards to watch them (and it’s kind of key to keep an eye on Claudius). Meanwhile, the players were on stage performing The Murder of Gonzago. I could never see both at the same time resulting in a lot of quick and uncomfortable twisting to try to fully appreciate the scene.
One of the most striking choices Farber uses is a thin plastic sheet to represent the fragile boundary between the living and the dead–apt in a play about ghosts, haunting, and grief.
When Hamlet’s father, Polonius, and Ophelia die they are each wheeled on stage on a mortician’s table under a plastic sheet. The stainless steel clinical mortuary ephemera was a little odd but it really did not work when Ophelia is pushed through the dirt on stage graveside on such an apparatus and then carried directly into her earthen grave. The plastic wrap between life and death gets tossed aside in that moment and with it the dramaturgy.
More effective is when the the plastic hangs like a milky curtain across the stage with the dead behind it in silhouette and the living in front. But with the billowing of the actual prop curtain it’s not always so well-behaved. At one point, Hamlet and Ghost Dad are having an awkward conversation around a lump of curtain blowing too far between them. The curtain is a good idea that has some physical kinks to be worked out.
The plastic curtain’s inconsistent application needled me (if you read my writings a lot, you know I have a “wall” fixation and wall dramaturgy is my passion), though not as much as the choices around Ophelia did. I just didn’t think the cold, wet nudity was necessary. Hasn’t she suffered enough textually? Do we really need to wallow in it? If it was meant to stoke my outrage at Ophelia’s treatment in the play, it had the opposite effect. I was more irritated with the production’s choices than Shakespeare’s.
Certainly there’s more life and verve in this than in Sam Gold’s 2017 production–the last major New York production of Hamlet I attended. Despite the atmospheric elements, the ensemble did not wholly engage me and I didn’t feel for Negga’s character enough.
In the end, it was a space I was (mostly) happy to be in, and yet I did not always enjoy the company.