Shakespeare Saturday: Re-imagining Hamlet

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Shakespeare Saturday! Bet you thought we’d run out of material by now, eh? Well, so did we… But, wait, there’s more! Shakespeare has so engrained himself into our culture and language that it may actually be impossible to exhaust the subject (knock on wood). New productions are constantly mounted and re-imagined (whether in 1950s cuba or the far reaches of space), becoming a staple in many a theatrical season.

The Wilma Theatre in Pennsylvania is one such theatre. The Wilma is a professional production house which has been around since 1973, hosting a wealth of innovative/provocative shows. As a theatre that prides itself for pushing the envelope of expectations it is no wonder that their current production of Hamlet is raising some eyebrows.

Lemme ‘splain… The Wilma’s Danish Prince is being played by a black woman. Yup, you read that right. Hamlet is being portrayed by Zainab Jah who has been receiving remarkable praise and molding herself to portray Hamlet, the great Dane, as realistically as possible. The play has not changed, the character’s gender has not changed, and, no, it is not meant as a commentary on trans issues… It’s Shakespeare. It is a rethinking of something that has been seen and done a million times, exactly as written, but allowing a woman to tackle that most sought after of roles… HAMLET.

The biggest argument in favor of this casting choice has been: “well men played all the women during Shakespeare’s time”. And it’s also quite true that most of the really meaty rolls in theatre (musical theatre, Shakespeare, you name it…) are written for men. While this is indeed true (and a tiresome struggle for many actresses, including myself) it is petty to suggest that Jah was cast only for shock value.  What I loved reading was that the director of The Wilma’s production cast the role based on who she felt was the most transformative actor whom she could count on to commit to the role.

Will Jah’s performance be comparable to those of Ian McKellan or Kenneth Branagh? You know… I guess that remains to be seen. History will tell. Whatever the case, congratulations to Jah and The Wilma for trying something new with 400 year old material. That is always to be commended, because without the continued love of Shakespeare and the will to infuse it with a new piece of flair we’d have nothing to write about on Saturdays.

The Wilma’s production of Hamlet runs through May 2016.

Happy Saturday, readers and join us tomorrow for something silly!



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