Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women
Hope Mill, Manchester
In Manchester at present, Shakespeare’s plays are like buses: you wait ages then three come along at once. Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women‘s all-female production of Hamlet stands out, although the determining characteristic is the enthusiasm, rather than the gender, of the cast.
Advance publicity, quoting the line "…to thine own self be true" and referring to Hamlet as ‘their’, hinted the production might be gender fluid. This turns out not to be the case—the characters are played in accordance with their gender in the text.
The production is clearly a labour of love with all involved determined not to let the side down. Director Kayleigh Hawkins takes a very respectful approach concentrating on getting the basics right. The verse is spoken well although the occasional strong accent intrudes. Little is left to chance—Hamlet’s duel with the pirates is shown rather than simply described and the sincerity of his romance with Ophelia is emphasised by their love letters being recited ecstatically to a lush musical backing.
Imaginative flourishes are limited to an opening silent tableau of key characters meeting their loves or their opponents and scenes featuring the Players. The ‘play within the play’ mixes a dramatic recital with pantomime humour and the verse is spoken in the style of rap and even heavy metal.
This is a period production with the cast in capes and tights and boiler suits serving as army uniforms. This approach does, however, mean that Eve Shotton gets stuck with an unappealing neck ruff and Hannah Ellis Ryan ends up wearing headgear so extreme it would be rejected by princess Beatrice. The set, designed by Jeni Holt Wright, is deceptively simple. This is a highly physical production concluding with a very convincing duel and featuring a prince who, at one point, does cartwheels around the stage. Much of the stage is, therefore, kept clear out of necessity but even so a few upturned benches make convincing battlements and a rear wall that turns transparent allows for spectral images.
The show features matching and contrasting performances. Maria Major and Emily Heyworth as, respectively, Claudius and Polonius bring to mind a pair of slightly aloof senior teachers. Major has an effusive charm but takes a condescending approach to those she considers her inferiors—including Hamlet. Heyworth is more scatterbrained and over-eager in trying to please; a finely judged performance balancing humour with sinister calculation.
Zoey Barnes’s Laertes, fierce-eyed and flamboyant, is a mirror image for the dour Prince of Denmark. Sophie Giddens brings a strong sense of decency to Horatio which is in sharp contrast to the sleek and predatory duo of Tori Burgess and Misha Duncan-Barry as the traitorous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Considering that Hamlet is known as a tragedy, there is a surprisingly high level of humour in the show. Amy Gavin and Hannah Ellis Ryan are a fine double act as the gravediggers.
Eve Shotton plays Hamlet as a deep thinker, weighing every word and pondering each option. It is an approach that draws out the gravity of some of the greatest speeches in theatre. Shotton takes a different approach to each of the speeches; Hamlet’s plot to prove his uncle’s guilt by staging a play is hatched during an intimate chat with the audience, while the soliloquy is performed as a stark solo spotlit against a dark background. Shotton avoids the depressive side of the character making Hamlet more joker than madman.
Girl Gang Manchester and Unseemly Women‘s Hamlet does not settle for using the all-female casting as a gimmick and becomes a confident and clear version of the play with some fine performances.