The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is shaking things up this season with a production of "Hamlet" that features a gender switch. Casting a woman to play the melancholy Dane can help the audience and actors alike see an old favorite in a new way.
ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich thought it was natural to cast a woman to play Hamlet. In fact, it struck him as positively Shakespearean to do so. "Shakespeare was writing about what was fundamentally human about people and investigating traits we all have in common," said Rich.
So it was a natural extension of that philosophy that lead Rich to cast Deborah Staples, who had recently appeared at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in the heavy-hitting roles of Cleopatra and Elizabeth I. For Staples, the opportunity to play Hamlet matched up with a growing desire to tackle to take on the men's roles in Shakespeare's canon. Hamlet was a good fit, and also puts her in a long theatrical tradition of women playing Hamlet. "Some of the traits that Hamlet has as a character are a little more bent toward female traits," said Staples. "Putting others needs in front of his own, a certain thoughtfulness and methodical nature. So when something bad happens, he doesn't jump in with aggressive revenge. It's 'is that the just thing to do, is that the right thing to do.' So there are certain checks that makes it more female in a way."
Leda Hoffman is directing this production of Hamlet. "I think Hamlet is this eminently relatable person, " she said. "This person who, through his soliloquies shares complex things in his mind that everyone works through. So in that way he can be an archetype of an Everyman, or Everyperson. Deborah is going to be playing Hamlet as a man, but there's an openness to this character that gives you an in. If you're a man, you've got a male character to connect with. If you're a woman. you have a female actor to connect with, so there's just little more breadth of the human experience that we can get into the one character when we have so many different things informing it."
Check out this rare 1899 film of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.