There are two ways you can respond to criticism on social media: run away and hide under the doona, wishing it would all just go away, or use it as fuel.
When Harriet Gordon-Anderson was announced for the lead role of Hamlet in Sydney-based theatre company Bell Shakespeare’s latest production there was, predictably, some backlash against the casting of a woman in this iconic male role.
“Bell Shakespeare is spoiling plays by gender-bending ... it’s immature ... This petty silliness is spoiling many other of life’s simple enjoyments,” reads one comment on an article about the production.
Gordon-Anderson takes such comments as proof we need to challenge the status quo now more than ever. And what better way to see this brooding, passionate and – let’s face it – misogynistic Danish prince embodied than by a female actor?
“I don’t consider gender cross-casting in what is an otherwise fairly traditional production of Hamlet to be revolutionary,” Gordon-Anderson tells Broadsheet. “But it’s amazing to me it still is revolutionary to some people, or offensive or upsetting. And that inspires me to think we do need this show. I love that.”
In fact, trolls were the least of Gordon-Anderson’s worries after the original production, with its fiendishly challenging lead role, was cancelled not once but twice due to lockdowns. Four shows into its March 2020 world premiere at the Sydney Opera House, the world was hit with the pandemic, and Hamlet was abruptly shut down.
The cast and crew, led by director Peter Evans, optimistically returned to the rehearsal room last year, only to be dealt another cruel blow in the guise of the Delta variant.
“We had a few new cast members and felt it was important to give them time to discover the roles for themselves, so [we] decided to push through the final week of rehearsals and performed in the rehearsal room with a live Zoom link our families could watch. It was heartbreaking. We felt like we were doing it with a noose around our necks,” says Gordon-Anderson.
Once again she had to put aside the tortured prince she’d worked so hard to realise and return to other voice-over and teaching work.
From all reports, when the show eventually returned to the Sydney Opera House last month, it was clear it was worth the wait.
Shakespeare’s seminal revenge tragedy, exploring Hamlet’s grief over his murdered, cuckolded father, is here reimagined for contemporary audiences, played out in a glamorous court in a wintry 1960s Denmark where the snow never stops falling. While this is Gordon-Anderson’s first time performing in Hamlet, it is a play she has always held dear.
“Hamlet’s was one of the voices that came out through the pages as contemporary to me and really relatable, a young person struggling against their parents, wanting more freedom than they’re given and wanting to express themselves and not being allowed to,” says Gordon-Anderson.
Thrilled to be cast in the lead male role, she and director Evans quickly established she was an actor performing a role that happens to be male, rather than performing it as a woman – something she feels passionate about, given its symbolism.
“I’m out of patience with seeing stories, theatre, film where the point stops at the fact that men can be dangerous to women. We know that,” she says. “But as someone who’s been on the receiving end of sexism, to use those tools – to slut-shame, to throw women on the ground, to spit in their faces for being weak – feels incredibly powerful. We feel very strongly we can go deeper into the darkness of those areas because I’m a female actor and can explore it without the tasteless switch off that happens when you get sensory overload.”
As rigorous as the physical and mental preparation for the role has been – including weightlifting and months of fencing lessons – it is equally important to “de-role”, as Gordon-Anderson puts it, at the end of each show. “The work is so much deeper in me now than it was in 2020. I wear him quite close to my skin now and I am truthfully quite terrified,” she says, laughing uncomfortably.
Nevertheless Gordon-Anderson is more than ready to share “this beautiful but manic-depressive individual I’ve lived with for long enough”, and feels confident the tour will go ahead this time.
“There’s so much more hope in the world and it feels much more possible.”
Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet runs from April 28 to May 14 at Arts Centre Melbourne.