It starts with a good-natured fencing battle. It ends with a slightly less good-natured fencing battle, with bodies strewn across the stage. So far, so Hamlet. Yet in-between, director Amy Leach has breathed new life into the Shakespeare standard, and created something very special indeed.
Leach has gender-flipped the lead character into the Princess of Denmark (Polonius and Horatio are also women in this new vision) and it’s an inspired choice. It’s not a new idea – Maxine Peake played Hamlet in Manchester a few years ago – yet Tessa Parr’s remarkable performance reminds us that Hamlet is a young person as well. It’s easy to forget after a steady parade of 40-something men, but Parr brings out Hamlet’s youthful angst and comical petulance.
The gender reversal is not the only refreshing thing about Leach’s production. The sleek black set by Hayley Grindle feels almost futuristic, and her costumes and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s melancholic score are redolent of Scandi noir. It’s also a relatively compact Hamlet at two hours and 40 minutes, and some purists won’t like the omissions – there’s no Guildenstern, just Rosencrantz, and Hamlet and Ophelia’s now same-sex relationship seems a bit underdeveloped – but the blistering pace does work incredibly well.
Parr is the undoubted star, but she’s ably supported by Simona Bitmate as a tragic Ophelia and Joe Alessi as the conniving Claudius, while Robert Pickavance provides a much-needed comic touch as a Yorkshire gravedigger. Hamlet may seem, at times, like a play in danger of being over-performed, but Leach’s invention and energy could introduce it to a whole new audience. The play is very much still the thing.