Monday, March 21, 2011

An Interview with our Hamlet

Interview: Female Hamlet Mary Tuomanen

The actress on gender, how Hamlet’s a bit of a misogynist, and manning up

Actress Mary Tuomanen has played Shakespearean characters of dubious gender with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre—lately, the androgynous fairy Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and cross-dressing Rosalind from As You Like It. She’s continuing on to the most famous role in theater in the PST’s production of Hamlet, which opened Friday and runs in repertory with As You Like It through May 14; Tuomanen will be the first woman to take the lead role in the city since legendary stage actress Charlotte Cushman in 1861. The A.V. Club talked with her about manning up, why female Hamlets are more controversial today than they were in the 19th century, and how the Prince of Denmark’s dick behavior actually makes it easier to relate.
A.V. Club: Hamlet’s one of the most famous roles in drama. Did you ever expect to play him?
Mary Tuomanen: Never. I’ve always admired Charlotte Cushman, Sarah Bernhardt, but it never occurred to me that I would play the role. My introduction to theater was through Shakespeare; I used to have audio tapes of Kenneth Branagh, Romeo And Juliet, and Hamlet, and I was so excited just sitting around listening to him speak. Hamlet is one of the first plays I ever fell in love with, but it never occurred to me that I would ever play the role.
AVC: Have you been any other characters in the play?
MT: No, but I did audition first for the role of Ophelia; then [director] Carmen [Khan] had the funny idea of having me read for Hamlet. It was out of the blue; I had one day to prepare, then I came in and read for Hamlet, and that was that.
No, wait—in high school I did play Rosencrantz, in this overly sexy dress—this very sexed-out Rosencrantz. It was pretty funny.
AVC: You mentioned Kenneth Branagh—do you have any other favorite Hamlets?
MT: There was a production at Trinity Repertory in 2006; it was the only perfect production of Hamlet I’ve ever seen. It was this man named Stephen Thorne, and he performed Hamlet in Providence, Rhode Island. It was utterly inspiring; it will always be my favorite Hamlet, I think.
He portrayed a Hamlet whose best friend was the audience—he was this modern man trapped in a crazy revenge fantasy, and he would look out at the audience in the middle of a scene, like, “Do you see this guy? What’s going on? What’s happening to me?” (Laughs.) You felt so bad for him! It was so funny, there was such warmth and humor and desperation in his performance. It’s the only Hamlet where I wept—outrageously—at the end.
AVC: Did you draw from Thorne, or any other Hamlets?
MT: As soon as I knew I had the role, I tried to stay away from other people’s performances so that they wouldn’t influence mine, so that it would be utterly mine. The advice I keep getting from older actors who have played Hamlet is, “Make it you, he’s you.” But Stephen Thorne’s performance cannot help but be an influence, because it was the first time I looked at Hamlet and said, “That’s me.”
AVC: My next question was going to be if you’d drawn from any particular female Hamlets, and I guess you haven’t. This is disappointing, because in doing research for this interview, I came across this Turkish Hamlet from 1978 with a woman in the lead, and, well, it is totally insane, and I was hoping to discuss it.
MT: No, but that sounds awesome! I should check it out after this!
AVC: I’ll email it to you—it is out of control.
MT: Thank you!
You know, I’m a theater person, I go to the theater all the time, but I’ve never seen a female Hamlet. It’s much rarer than you’d think, especially because there’s this great legacy of Bernhardt and Cushman. Bizarrely, I think doing it now is more provocative than it was, at least in the United States.
AVC: Why do you say that?
MT: With gay civil rights in the news, it’s more salacious to have a woman kissing a woman onstage, even if she’s playing a man. Especially in something as traditional as Shakespeare.
AVC: So back in the day of Bernhardt, gay rights were so far from people’s minds that it wasn’t seen as sexual? Like, the idea of two women wanting to have sex with each other was too preposterous to cross people’s minds, even when there were women kissing onstage?
MT: The term lesbian (even though Charlotte Cushman was a lesbian herself) wasn’t a common term. It existed, but it wasn’t very… loud in popular culture. So you could get away with more things with a wink, because everything was a wink, everything was in shadow. Now everything’s out on the table, and America actually has to deal with a population of people who are demanding civil rights, and I think that changes the climate around productions like this.
AVC: You’re also playing Rosalind in As You Like It, who spends much of the play disguised as a page. What are the differences between playing a woman pretending to be a man and just playing a man?
MT: “How good of an actor is this character?” With Rosalind, you have to be very aware that she’s having fun, and the moments where she forgets herself are the moments where she becomes more feminine. The baseline is the softness of someone who has always lived at court, who has always had pretty dresses. In Carmen’s production, the girls at court hang out in an attic full of girly toys, they live in this hyper-feminized world.
So she’s definitely trying on a role. The swagger is a little more swagger-y, and the punch on the shoulder has a little too much thrust in it; she’s trying slightly harder. Which is really fun to play with.
AVC: So in this production, if you’re standing still and not speaking, what in the makeup and costuming is marking you as male?
MT: They have me in a really, really nice suit. It’s modern dress. It’s a women’s suit, but it’s cut in a way that makes me look pretty legitimately masculine. And I have a tie. [Laughs.]
There’s a lot to be done with my hair, because it’s very easy for me to look like a little boy, and Hamlet needs to be a little more than boyish. The transformation of my hair over the course of the play has been fun; we tried slicking it back, and I had a part, and I looked like I was from Hogwarts… (Laughs.) But it turns out the crazier I get, the more I pull at my hair and make it explode and look bizarre, the more I look like Hamlet. As we go through the production, it’s becoming less important that I look like a man and more that I look like Hamlet.
AVC: The director said that she wants to show how universal the character of Hamlet is, how it’s about being human rather than male or female. What are some things that you find universal about the character?
MT: Definitely the complex relationships of children and their fathers, what it means to make your father proud—it’s so universal, and so intense. Especially now that women are expected to succeed in similar ways as men; if I go over to a classroom at Wharton business school, I’ll see people of all genders.
And also the problem of a thinking person, a sensitive person, living in the world and seeing how horrible people are to one another and saying, “Yeah, I’ll continue to live,” and justifying that. I think everyone has periods like that.
AVC: There are a lot more female Hamlets than there are female King Lears, for example; in part because Hamlet seems to be regarded by a lot of people as sort of feminine to begin with. I guess because he’s all full of feelings and stuff?
MT: [Laughs.] Apparently only girls do that.
AVC: But I remember reading this for the first time in high school and thinking he was a total dick to women.
MT: Right?
AVC: He uses a lot of words that suggest he doesn’t like women very much—like “whore,” or getting mad at himself for crying like a woman. How do you feel about saying those things?
MT: I think you’re absolutely right—there’s a virulent strain of misogyny in the character of Hamlet. But I actually really, really related to it. When you’ve gone through childhood not particularly thinking about your gender, then you hit puberty and all of a sudden you’re constrained to this role, it can be very, very frustrating. Especially if you grew up a tomboy, and you don’t want to suddenly be different from your male friends. It’s thrust upon you, and it’s difficult to deal with.
So that rage I felt against my own gender was really easy to put into Hamlet. He catches himself crying, he catches himself whining, he catches himself being an absolute coward—like, I man up all the time. I don’t want to act sensitive; I don’t want to cry in front of people. I think that pressure exists all the time, especially as women go into fields of business, et cetera; there’s pressure to man up.
AVC: So now you’re under more literal pressure to man up; what do you do with your voice and body language to appear more masculine onstage, and were there any characters or real people that you drew from?
MT: [Laughs.] I have a lot of male friends, and I’ve been told I have that playful, talking-among-boys manner with them anyway. In the scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it was really easy to access. Another nice thing is that my real-life dear, dear friend is playing Horatio, so all of that affection is easy to access, too. As far as studying particular men, I feel like my manner is already pretty androgynous in life.
My mother tried to raise me pretty non-gender-specifically; she didn’t get me girly toys, and I think that affected my bearing as I grew up. In Paris, I went to a world where gender roles are very clear and so fixed; my female friends were very precise with their femininity. And it was fun to live in that culture for a while, to wake up and put on a dress, to experiment with that costume. As I’ve grown up, it’s been more of a quest for my feminine side than my masculine side, I guess.

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