by Addie Pates '19
Did you miss The Actors from the London Stage’s production of Hamlet last month? Not to worry; I’ve got the recap you need. The cast pulled off an incredible feat: putting on one of the Bard’s most well-known works with only five people and a suitcase at their disposal. The result was a bold and funny rendition. Their limited number meant that every actor was double-cast, some even interacting with themselves onstage. When a character wasn’t speaking, they were often represented by an article of clothing puppeteered by another actor.
The cast chose to lean into the humor this created. The audience laughed aloud frequently—at the puppet show and at Hamlet’s lunacy. While I was grateful for the entertainment, I still have strong opinions about the choices the cast made. Did their portrayal of Hamlet’s madness alienate or draw in the audience? Did the heavy comedic elements negate the tragedy, or enhance it? These are all queries that would make for excellent article topics.
I, instead, choose to write a list of how gay I feel the characters to be.
From the beginning, Shakespeare has always been queer. Renaissance acting norms meant that male actors played female roles, so any love story on stage was homoerotic to some degree. While the Bard’s works have often been interpreted into stuffy, over-serious, highbrow productions, they have just as often been used subversively. From Asta Neilsen’s 1921 genderbent Hamlet, to Tom Hiddleston and Hadley Frasier sucking face in a 2015 production of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s plays have long been a space for exploring gender and sexuality. The Actors from the London Stage had a huge opportunity to follow in this grand tradition with their casting being gender-blind. So let’s see how they shaped up; enjoy a list of character descriptions ranked from least to most queer.
Horatio: Not to get too emotional, but what a disappointment. It’s my own fault for expecting him to carry most of the queer subtext on his shoulders. Still, can you blame me? What with “Goodnight, sweet Prince,” even by the most conservative estimates Horatio has a thing for Hamlet. What a damn shame. This production’s scholar humps around with a Scottish accent and absolutely no queer charisma. He even has a cape (a cape!), and still manages to exude zero gay energy. Forget all the dying—the real tragedy of this play is that the sole survivor is straighter than I pretended to be in middle-school.
This isn’t entirely the actress’s fault. In most productions, Horatio tends to stay in the background of scenes, watching everyone but saying little. His quiet observation gives the impression that he’s silently judging his straight friends. The five person cast means that this aspect vanishes. Luckily, the gender-blind casting guarantees other queer readings, but I’ll get to that later. For Horatio, 0/10.
Polonious: You know, I would almost consider him ace, but the scene when he and Ophelia wave goodbye to Laertes gives me pause. Sure, his role is mostly comedic. His actor is the master of talking so much it stops being funny, then continuing on until it loops back around to hilarious. In that specific moment, though, he seems almost…cunning? Despite my appreciation for this nuanced portrayal, I don’t want to add to the ‘asexual people characterized as villains’ trope. Therefore: 2/10
Claudius and Gertrude: What a group of queer folk who’ve gone too long without interacting with straight friends imagine hetero relationships to be like. Sure, they’re all over each other at first, getting caught making out the moment they’re alone. But eventually they get so fed up that one party would rather knowingly drink poisoned wine than deal with the other. The Straights, am I right? 3/10
Hamlet: When we are first introduced to our intrepid protagonist, he is planted on the sidelines of a family event, trench-coat buttoned, shoulders up, looking viscerally uncomfortable. Any gay who’s ever discovered themselves in college but had to come back home for Christmas can relate. For this alone, Hamlet scores points, and being played by a woman also wins him some. Seeing a woman tensely inhabiting a male role certainly raises questions about gender identity—good stuff so far. But boy, does this version take that “beggar that I am” line seriously.
The question of Hamlet’s madness—Real? Imagined? Manufactured?—comes up in most readings of Hamlet. Actors must choose how to play it. The London Actors, it seems, find their solution in the second act by dressing Hamlet as a vagrant and having him wander the stage with a bag full of trash. This method certainly helps us understand his isolation from his peers, but we’re still left alienated from our protagonist. How am I supposed to find queerness in him, or even establish any sort of connection, when I’m not sure how the hell I’m supposed to feel about him? I can’t work under these conditions. 4/10
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: The mean girls who by all rights should be hetero based on the homophobic remarks they whisper behind your back, yet seem just a little too close to each other. I’m sure many were expecting more from this pair, but I still like what we got, especially as they lose their composure as the scenes go on. They aren’t just evil lesbians - they are evil lesbians with character arcs. 5/10
Marcellus and Francisco: These guards set the play off to a good start, clinging to each other for their scenes together. Of course, the production does open (very effectively, I might add) in the pitch black, so their need to be close to another human might be due to paralyzing fear. Still, homoeroticism by necessity is still homoeroticism. 6/10
Gravedigger 1 and Gravedigger 2: These two have a bit of a Bert and Ernie vibe; one is serious and focused on doing his job, the other is goofy, distractible, and surprisingly insightful. A buddy cop dynamic, and I’m here for it. 7/10
Ghost: Doesn’t need to be petty and dramatic but super is. Appears out of the darkness, illuminated by a single flashlight, driving the mortals around him to writhing torment. If that isn’t a big gay mood, I don’t know what is. 7/10
Fortinbras and Captain: What with the trench coats and wide-brimmed hats, they have a bit of a ‘Carmen Sandiego’ aesthetic going on. 8/10
Ophelia: Is one of the only actors who doesn’t play her double-casting as comedy, and the show is better for it. Even when she has to act against herself, she tugs at my heartstrings. Her “remembrances” scene with the gender-bent Hamlet is heartbreakingly tender. He seems almost unable to speak with her unless he’s on his knees, which, mood. You could almost imagine that their being the same gender is what’s keeping them apart, as opposed to Hamlet being a dick. Almost. 8.5/10
Laertes: My. Bisexual. Soul. Dear Lord, this is not fair. Somehow both an earnest gay young man and my jock girlfriend at the same time. I love him. The Poe Dameron jacket. The physicality. The way he tries really hard not to cry after finding out his sister is dead but starts crying anyway oh my god I’m tearing up just remembering it. All the gay energy lacking in Horatio is more than made up for in Laertes. 11/10
Of course, I’m but one person. Others may not see what I see, or may have been moved by queerness that I have overlooked. While this list is certainly not meant to be representative, the intent behind it remains strong and pure. This production missed some opportunities, sure, but its creative solutions to the limitations of a five person cast produced more. In a time when Shakespeare is all too often adapted by and for pretentious, straight, white men, it’s good to see an adaptation taking some risks. For all my sarcasm and bemoaning, it really did touch this greedy bisexual’s heart.