Not Hamlet

Janet Suzman
Oberon Masters

Janet Suzman

The South African born Janet Suzman is, of course, very well known as an actress and rather less so as a director. On this showing, she also has academic leanings that go well beyond mere instinct.

This short Oberon Masters publication consists of a series of essays on theatrical matters with a feminist or at least feminine viewpoint on issues that have rarely been addressed elsewhere.

Having said that, the first, impassioned essay is an attack on Mark Rylance, Sir Derek Jacobi, Mark Twain, Henry James and a number of their fellow thinkers, who share the belief that the illustrious Earl of Oxford wrote the plays commonly attributed to that unworthy commoner from the Midlands, William Shakespeare.

While Miss Suzman clearly wants to do little more than laugh at these Oxfordians, she presents a number of cogent arguments that would seem strong enough to dismiss this faculty forever. Even Sigmund Freud, perhaps the most distinguished proponents of the theory, is categorically proven to be misguided, at least in this area.

Ironically, some of the arguments used to show that William Shakespeare was William Shakespeare are contradicted in the second essay on boy actors. If one of the proofs that the Earl of Oxford did not write the plays was that there was no evidence that he did, why should we believe that mature male performers took the more mature female parts when there is literally no evidence to support this thesis either? However, only to get a nicely written essay and who knows, it might just be correct.

The book then moves on to a number of insightful chapters about individual stars of the female theatrical canon. The first of these looks at a woman with whom Miss Suzman has had a lengthy love affair since first playing the role, Cleopatra. As he says "it's the richest, most varied, misunderstood part that Shakespeare wrote".

The writer then goes on to do a similar job on both Shaw's and Shakespeare's St Joans and then Hedda Gabler in which she goes into considerable detail about her own thought processes while playing the role.

The undoubted highlight is a fascinating chapter looking simultaneously at Gertrude and Ophelia from the perspective of a director who sees far more to Hamlet than merely the play's central star.

Anyone who is considering directing or playing anyone of these roles would do well to learn from this deeply considered short book written by someone who is clearly as well qualified as anybody to provide guidance.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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