Theatre Review: Hamlet at The Leeds Playhouse’s Pop-Up Theatre

Topically coinciding with International Women’s Day celebrations, Amy Leach’s female reimagining of Hamlet opens in the Playhouse’s Pop-Up Theatre where Leo Owen caught the show

In tracksuits and leggings, Hamlet and her female opponent fence on a raised platform with flowers strewn across the front of the stage below. A letter arrives and she’s stripped by female army officers in camouflage to now wear a black dress as flowers turn to smoking embers and a crown, bouquet and flag symbolise the King’s funeral. All the while, nothing is said for this first five minutes, making for an arresting and sombre opening, allowing characters to quietly grieve before the cloak and dagger meetings begin.

It’s less than two months since the death and already Hamlet has a new step-father, her uncle, married to her mother within a month of their tragic loss. Hamlet’s resentment of these hasty actions is bolstered by the repeated sightings of her father’s ghost hinting towards foul play, cold accusations that she’s “obstinate[ly] grieving” and growing unease as Norway threatens to invade to take back stolen land.

Tessa Parr re-joins Leach, again playing a titular Shakespearean role, having already tackled Juliet to great acclaim. As Hamlet, she captures the complexity of the role, competently depicting the character’s increasingly manic behaviour. Her resemblance to Jo Mousley, playing her mother, Gertrude, is particularly well cast by Kay Magson.

Magson’s cast are in fact strong throughout, playing multiple character parts, only occasionally compromised by lacking special effects and ill-judged choreography: Ophelia’s (Simona Bitmate) unnecessary and misleading drowning sequence, Laertes’ (Dan Parr) visibly breathing corpse, Claudius’ (Joe Alessi) fatal wounds without blood and poison that seemingly makes exceptions all weaken otherwise outstanding performances.

Hayley Grindle’s modern set is simple but slick with security lights breaking up the stage, emphasising the paranoid feeling of surveillance that permeates the play as characters constantly watch one-another. Slats of light illuminating the stage are reminiscent of more traditional castle arrow slits and later subtly transform into glowing crosses to symbolise chapel confessions. Wind sounds along the ramparts and discordant music linking scenes add to this eerie atmosphere, alongside the expected skull of Yorick.

Leach’s Hamlet successfully seeks to rectify Shakespeare’s gender imbalance, challenging the 84 to 16 percent male dominance in character roles available by skilfully giving many of Hamlet’s leads a female voice. Although, like its flawed hero, Hamlet is not without its faults, Leach’s boasts a pleasing neat circular structure, full use of the theatre space and manages to keep an age-old tale fresh.

Hamlet shows at The Leeds Playhouse 7-30 March:

Leo Owen