Sarah Siddons did it. Charlotte Cushman did it with pants on. Sarah Bernhardt did it in prose. Eva Le Gallienne did it with Uta Hagen. As long as it’s been legal for women to appear on stage, they’ve been playing Hamlet. Next week the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company will become a part of women’s history when they celebrate their 20th year of staging all-women productions with their own Hamlet.
In her 20 years running the company, director and actor Lisa Wolpe has played Romeo, Iago and Shylock, to name just a few of the Bard’s most famous male characters. She travels around the world advising artistic directors on creating diversity in their theaters. She directs and acts at the most prestigious Shakespeare festivals in the country. But when Wolpe approached foundations for support for her all-female Hamlet, she was told, “That sounds like a gimmick.” On a break from rehearsals, she vented to Ms.:
It’s not a gimmick, it’s a time-honored tradition. Every great actress has played Hamlet. It’s not a new thing. I think it’s sad that we have to keep reinventing this. It’s not a gimmick; you just don’t want to fund women.
Despite a dearth of resources, Wolpe is forging ahead with the show, which runs from August 30 to October 27 at The Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles. All of the roles will be played by women, from the domineering King Claudius to the meddling Polonius to the melancholy Dane himself, who will be played by Wolpe.
Asked whether her work has a social purpose, she has three answers: A. Yes, I’m providing opportunities for women; B. Yes, there are things about Shakespeare’s plays you don’t realize until you have an all-woman cast; and C. Stop asking me that.
Undoubtedly, women rarely get to play the best roles in the Western canon—with the exception of a few standouts such as Clytemnestra, Hecuba and Cleopatra—because the roles are mostly for men. Compared to New York City, which has two all-women classical theater companies (the Judith Shakespeare Company and The Queen’s Company) and countless other theaters that experiment with non-traditional casting, LAWSC is the only company of its kind in L.A.
In many ways, Shakespeare was very much writing about gender. In his plays, women are constantly disguising themselves as men, men fall in love with other men and every play examines the power imbalance in male-female relationships. In most productions, these issues are rendered invisible by casting and staging that reinforces contemporary gender norms, whereas all-female productions can keep gender and sex in the front of an audience’s mind.
In this production, Rosencrantz—a friend of Hamlet’s employed by the King to lead Hamlet to his death—has been cast to actually be a woman. Wolpe explained her reasoning:
I think that the way men use women as sexual pawns is fascinating, and so I asked Claudius to just undress [Rosencrantz] with his eyes and use her for further bait to draw Hamlet on, which I think she’d be expected to do. And the reward she gets is death. I think that’s how a woman would be utilized then, and maybe it makes you think about her for a heartbeat longer than if she was a guy who was a spy and then was put to death.
Though Rosencrantz is the only character Wolpe has flipped (the rest of the male roles are filled by women playing men), it’s not hard to imagine further ways in which the gender issues in Hamlet might be foregrounded by the sex of the actors. After all, Shakespeare’s Hamlet coined some of Western civilization’s most famous misogynist phrases. Hamlet famously complains of his mother, “Frailty, they name is woman!” (1.2.6). He rails against himself for acting like a “whore” for talking too much: “Why, what an ass am I! … That I … Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2.58). And he tells his girlfriend to become a nun rather than marry because women always make fools of their husbands: “Get thee to a nunnery, go” (3.1.11). These words will undoubtedly resonate differently when spoken by a woman, even one in convincing drag.
So is there a social purpose to what the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company does? Don’t forget Wolpe’s third answer: c. Stop asking me that. In our interview, her frustration with being treated differently from male actor/directors, despite 20 years of experience and recognized expertise, was palpable:
People always talk to me like, ‘So, could this be applicable in the third grade? Maybe we could strengthen the girls in the Christmas pageant.’ Stop infantilizing me because I’m female. Ian McKellan and I have sat and talked about our Richard III. I know as much as anyone. It’s not different. We are doing exactly the same thing as Kevin Spacey, who runs a theater company and played Richard III, but nobody asks Spacey if he’s thought about doing it with high-school students. It’s just that you expect me to be different, like someone who doesn’t want all that.
Having met Wolpe and sat in on rehearsal, I can testify that she wants all that and is capable of handling all of it, too. Nevertheless, she says a lack of funding may make this LAWSC’s last production.
Wolpe’s muse, the Victorian actor Charlotte Cushman, was famous for playing men—”breeches roles,” in the parlance of her time. Cushman described herself on her own Hamlet poster as “a lady universally acknowledged as the greatest living tragic actress.” In true superstar style, Cushman announced her retirement from the stage many times before she was really done. Hopefully Wolpe is only following in Cushman’s footsteps when she threatens the end of her company, but you never know. Catch her while you can by buying tickets here. Even if you’re not in L.A., you can still defy the patriarchy by supporting what is clearly not a gimmick.
Photos of Bernhardt and Cushman poster from Wikimedia Commons