William Missouri Downs’ 2015 comedy, Women Playing Hamlet, is not only a gender bending take on Shakespeare’s classic, but gently lampoons method acting as well as the notion that, if women only tried a little harder, their success might be comparable to their male counterparts.
A cleverly constructed play that reverses the gender back from the Bards day, when only male actors could play female roles, Women Playing Hamlet, will be opening at Hartwell Players later this month.
For director, Jodi Sanders, there was a lot that drew her to the play. “Firstly, as a woman who has played many roles, in life, in business, and in the theatre, I was immediately intrigued with the title. “Women Playing Hamlet”, such a powerful play, and of course, initially in Shakespeare’s time, only portrayed by all men,” she says.
As a teenager, Sanders had a real knack for deciphering Shakespeare and remembers studying Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and of course Hamlet, and her friends and family would say she could explain it as if she was describing the plot to her favourite soap opera. “I think that is because underneath the language of Shakespeare are stories with twists and turns that are quite similar to any soapy,” she says. “That is one of the many reasons I was drawn to this play, the story telling references to Hamlet told simply through Jessica’s journey as a former soap opera actress figuring out if she could or should play Hamlet while everyone in her life tells her she can’t.”
In subsequent reads, Sanders has just loved how clever the playwright is at weaving the nuances of Hamlet into Jessica’s story, saying she has really had more than a few giggles at the subtly of some of the references. “If you don’t know Hamlet, it won’t distract from watching the play at all, and if you do understand Hamlet, it will be like being “in” on some ‘inside jokes’,” she says.
In addition, as a kid Sanders was often told she was “very dramatic” and was even nicknamed by some of the adults in her life “Sarah” for “Sarah Bernhardt”, referenced in the play, and the first woman to play Hamlet on film. “I suppose whenever I was showing “too much” emotion, I would hear “there is Sarah, at it again”, or “let’s go Sarah”. As I grew older, I realised that “Sarah” was my creativity, my imagination, and my flair for the “dramatics”, and they were all part of what made me unique, and I learned to embrace those parts of myself, and chose when to use them,” she says.
“Also, whilst I finished my Masters in Management, before I chose something different, as often referenced in the play, I also completed the first year of my MFA , in New Jersey – Rutgers, Mason Gross, ‘Go Scarlett Knights!'”
For those familiar with Shakespeare’s original, the play parallels Jessica’s indecision about whether or not she should play Hamlet, with Hamlet’s indecisive nature about everything. There are many comparisons and references that are very funny and even quite poignant, but , says Sanders, who doesn’t want to give away the best bits, you will need to come and see the play for those. Sanders’ belief is that the playwright wants people, particularly women, to know that they have the power to choose the roles they play in life.
As for staging, Sanders explains that the play is meant to be staged with a minimal set using Shakespeare’s verbal scene painting technique, yet it also has power points that help to describe characters, situations, or advance the plot. Incorporating those elements in a seamless way, whilst also figuring out how to make it snow, has been through collaboration and discussions with the cast and crew, to keep the play fast-paced and enjoyable.
The work also requires actors to play multiple roles so Sanders’ process during the rehearsal period was to work with actors in understanding each scene and how each character is important to Jessica’s journey, and how the writing has tied back to Hamlet. “I think whether you are playing one role, or multiple roles, each should be approached by understanding the text, the context, and why the role exists,” she says. “Then it is about finding what you have inside yourself, through either experience or observation, that you can bring to that role.”
All-female casts are not exactly plentiful – three that spring to mind immediately are, Agnes of God, Steel Magnolias and Dixie Swim Club – there are many more but are there enough?
“I don’t think you could ever say there are enough plays done in community theatre that are specifically for women, particularly older women,” says Sanders, who has just recently had the opportunity to play an excellent role in a British comedy, that was written for a man, however the director decided to cast it as a 53 year old woman. “I repeatedly said, it was such a unique opportunity to play slap-stick fast-paced comedy, because those roles are normally written for men,” she says. “That said, I know a number of excellent directors, choosing plays that have great roles for women, just wish there were more of those directors, and frankly more plays with great roles for the 50+.”
Sanders returned to the stage after a 28-year absence, making her Australian acting debut at Hartwell Players in “Love, Loss and What I Wore” in 2017. She then joined the Hartwell Players committee as secretary, and for the last year has been Vice President. She also appeared at Hartwell as Helen in a One Act Play written by Thomas Pierce called “Genesis”, and has helped with props or front of house on other productions.
Women Playing Hamlet made its way to Hartwell’s Committee, who review play submissions each year. Hartwell’s season typically consists of a comedy, a One Act Play season, and a drama with the addition of a drama this year. “I suppose when I described this play to the committee, and my passion for it, they thought it was worth reading, and later chose to include it in our season and to allow me to direct it,” says Sanders.
Women Playing Hamlet is feminist, funny and empowering. Like Sanders has found, it will also resonate with many.
“As an adult and as woman, I can relate to the struggle of juggling many roles in life. There have also been times when I have settled for something, or stayed in something longer than I wanted to because of the uncertainty of “what was next”? I think that many people can relate to. How often in life, are we playing a role, because others tell us “we can’t” or we “shouldn’t” do something else. Or maybe we feel like we aren’t able to make a change because of our own roadblocks or barriers that we build for ourselves. Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be, or we don’t take the time to understand something because it seems too complicated. When we take a moment to pause, and to recognise that we have the power to choose, it is only then that we can change our environment or our reactions and allow ourselves to be who we want to be. This play explores these concepts, while allowing the audience to laugh at Jessica, and perhaps themselves.”
Women Playing Hamlet
March 26 – April 4
Ashwood High School Performing Arts Centre
Vannam Drive, Ashwood, VIC 3147