Review: Hamlet - Leeds Playhouse

Yvette Huddleston

Simona Bitmate as Ophelia and Tessa Parr as Hamlet in Leeds Playhouses production of the Shakespeare tragedy.

Hamlet is one of the most widely performed of Shakespeare’s plays, and the one which probably feels most familiar even to those who have never seen it, so how do you make it fresh and exciting?

Well, for a start you get Amy Leach to direct it. Leach is a director of great skill and imagination – she’s proved it time and again in her work both at the Playhouse and elsewhere – and here she brings all her inventiveness and playfulness to bear on the Bard’s timeless tragedy.

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In this radical reimagining Tessa Parr plays the title role. It’s not the first time that Hamlet has been played by a woman, but playing the Dane as a princess, rather than a prince, has rarely been done. It adds an extra layer of complexity while also imbuing elements of the text with more weight and significance. A young woman, whether we like it or not, would have far less agency at court than her male counterpart, so Hamlet’s vacillation makes more sense. Male inaction becomes, in a way, frustrated female subjugation.

Other casting choices are inspired – a female Horatio (Crystal Condie) works well but making Polonius (Susan Twist) a woman means that the relationship with Ophelia (Simona Bitmate) becomes a mother-daughter dynamic and plays cleverly on the very particular tensions and manipulations in that familial relationship. This is also apparent in the encounters between Gertrude (Jo Mousley) and Hamlet. It is a tour de force from Parr who is a commanding presence on stage; you can’t take your eyes off her and she makes all the famous speeches her own. She gets tremendous support from the brilliant ensemble company all the way in a pacy, energetic and totally engaging production.

To March 30.