They say you never forget your first time. Mine was at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, the setting Denmark and the prince portrayed by a Black woman. Shakespeare, although beautiful on the page, is only truly understood when spoken from the human mouth. Although the words may be the same, unconventional casting and set design can provide accessibility to a story has been told for 400 years. As someone who does not look for herself reflected in film or literature as the exercise has proven futile, it was heartening to see someone that looked like me portraying that most famous of Danish princes.
Directed by Blanka Zizka, this production sought to present Hamlet within a non-specific time. On its own, the set seems out of place with graffiti covering the walls, with a multi-lever platform as the primary set piece and wood chips for the lowest level of the set’s flooring. The strange choice of flooring was utilized not merely as a floor, but as a prop utilized as a means of scene transition by sprinkling particles from above, swords were planted in it, it was used by the actors as a weapon and even shoveled by the gravedigger. Handguns are utilized in conjunction with swords and rapiers. The costumes are paramilitary, minimalist pieces of no specific period in extreme colors of either creamy whites and gray or somber black and navy. They display old fashioned references with modern cuts, yet as individual pieces, they could be seen on a hipster in Fishtown right now.
At the heart of the unconventional setup is the title character, Hamlet, here portrayed by English actress Zainab Jah. As a petite, black woman endowed with a slightly raspy voice and sporting a TWA, Jah presents the antithesis of the white male image for which this character is usually portrayed. There was a conscious effort to enhance her androgyny instead of attempting to create a man. Being much shorter in stature than her cast mates could support the interpretation that this Hamlet is closer to sixteen during the course of the play and not the older man of thirty to thirty-five as is generally portrayed. With high riding boots, fitted pants and a loose shirt with strategically placed zippers along the top of the sleeve (to lend a disheveled appearance when necessary), Jah’s Hamlet appears a neutral, but still melancholy vessel. Her race is almost explained away with the ghost played by a Black actor, yet not entirely as her uncle is portrayed by a white actor. It is as unimportant to the story as her “true” sex is.
The one real criticism I came away with was Ophelia’s choreography. Elaborate dance moves accompanied her monologues perhaps to emphasize her already tenuous grasp on reality and display her gradual decent into depression and madness before meeting a tragic fate. Although a great deal of artistic license was taken with this production already, dance moves along with her speeches seemed unnecessary and gratuitous.
Since my own personal history with Shakespeare involves the texts, the films (and yes CliffNotes because after all, it was high school), my pallet is rather limited. Given what I have seen and been introduced to, this modern imagining does have a specific vision. One not so 1990s specific as Romeo + Juliet, yet not nearly as lush as Kenneth Branagh’s 19th century set pieces in Hamlet, but still a specific vision. Film is a wonderful medium for Shakespeare, but does not hold a candle to a live human voice speaking it in front of you, particularly when you can finally see someone that looks like you on the stage.
featured image: author’s own