Sunday, July 9, 2017

SF Shakespeare's Hamlet

Time for Shakespeare in the Park!  We drove to the furthest of their performance locations both for the company and because we can never wait for the more local weekends (although some years we go more than once). It was excellent fun to see the same production that the kids had done this year and to compare them. Made me appreciate the girls as Hamlet and Gertrude even more!

 The performance included some gender swapping (as had ours, obviously): Polonius and Laetes, usually father and son, were mother and daughter. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were also women. The only changes required were switches in pronoun and all worked well as strong female characters.

Ophelia was played by a man, but he played her as a woman. This didn't work as well. First, the other two roles with swapped genders had the characters changing genders, not the actor, so the difference was initially confusing: was he a man playing Ophelia as a woman or as a man? Why swap one way for the female actors and another for the male? After a while it became clear that we were watching a man playing Ophelia as a woman. Unfortunately, that's hard for most men to do without coming across as ridiculing women's emotions, gestures, and behavior.  (We wondered how men did it well in Shakespeare's time.)  The result was a bit cringe-worthy as the performance bordered on trivialization, stereotyping, and making the role almost comic. The girls were especially critical of the scene where Ophelia goes mad in front of the royal couple, thinking that it seemed to be more grieving and less crazy, which is how they see the lines in that scene. I'm not sure why they didn't just make Ophelia into Ophelio and go for a gay Hamlet. It would have allowed for the gender swap, made an nice statement, and not distracted as much from the overall plot. K disagreed with me, thinking that doing so would be unrealistic for the time frame (but I argued back that having a female adviser (Polonius) and a young female character who returns to college (Laertes) would be equally unrealistic... besides, I reminded her, when Laertes goes to college Polonius gives her a credit card, so it was clearly a modern setting).

(We later read a review that described the Ophelia character in this production as "gender fluid."  I suppose it is worth reflection as to why we needed to see any character as either man or woman.  Still, many of the scenes seemed awkward.  Whether male or female, the character in many scenes seemed to exaggerate emotion in a way that men do when making fun of women and that undermined the dignity of the role.

K disagreed with the description that the character was "gender fluid," pointing out that the pronouns used were all female and that she was called "sister" by Laertes.  She also disagrees with switching any gender or era; she's a traditionalist who can laugh at the exchange of a credit card in the play, but disagrees with the director's choice in so modernizing or otherwise changing a classic.  Opinions!)

But what do I know? We had a great time, it reinforced my belief that the kids' productions could be a lot more challenging, and we had interesting discussions afterward about both the production and the story. I read an article recently - Harvard Business Review, maybe? - about the importance of Shakespeare's characters historically from the perspective that they were among the first to really develop within the stories. According to the article, before Shakespeare, characters [at least in English literature] emerged on stage, but did not actually develop and change. We talked a lot about this, how choices about behavior, emotion, perspective can inform and change our lives, too. A rich evening!

G with the wonderful actor who also played Queen Gertrude so well.

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