December 15, 2017

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Opinion

Taking theatre to account

New fringe take on Hamlet takes aim at traditional gender roles

It’s something of a theatre truism: every actor wants to play Hamlet. The protagonist of Shakespeare’s most performed play is often seen as a career-making role, a juicy part for an actor to really sink his teeth into.

With Inertia, which makes its debut at this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 8), young theatre artists Gislina Patterson, Davis Plett, Angelica Schwartz and Erin Meagan Schwartz are aiming to excise the ghost of Hamlet from theatre, as well as address harmful power dynamics, toxic masculinity and entitlement.

“We’ve been struggling to figure out a pithy description of the show,” Plett says with a laugh, “but this is a show (that is) a mis-remembered version of Hamlet, set at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.”

Hamlet, to put it simply, isn’t exactly what you’d call a great guy, and he serves as something of an avatar for many of the issues the quartet seeks to explore in Inertia. “Hamlet is, as a character, obsessed with maintaining institutions of power,” Plett says. “He’s obsessed with maintaining the status quo.” In the world of theatre, Hamlet — both the text and the character — is an institution unto itself.

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LEAH BORCHERT PHOTO</p><p>Scene from the play Inertia, which debuts at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre</p>

LEAH BORCHERT PHOTO

Scene from the play Inertia, which debuts at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival tonight at the Rachel Browne Theatre

It’s something of a theatre truism: every actor wants to play Hamlet. The protagonist of Shakespeare’s most performed play is often seen as a career-making role, a juicy part for an actor to really sink his teeth into. 

With Inertia, which makes its debut at this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival tonight at 9:30 p.m. at the Rachel Browne Theatre (Venue 8), young theatre artists Gislina Patterson, Davis Plett, Angelica Schwartz and Erin Meagan Schwartz are aiming to excise the ghost of Hamlet from theatre, as well as address harmful power dynamics, toxic masculinity and entitlement.

"We’ve been struggling to figure out a pithy description of the show," Plett says with a laugh, "but this is a show (that is) a mis-remembered version of Hamlet, set at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival."

Hamlet, to put it simply, isn’t exactly what you’d call a great guy, and he serves as something of an avatar for many of the issues the quartet seeks to explore in Inertia. "Hamlet is, as a character, obsessed with maintaining institutions of power," Plett says. "He’s obsessed with maintaining the status quo." In the world of theatre, Hamlet — both the text and the character — is an institution unto itself.

Ophelia, who appears opposite Hamlet in the Shakespearean classic, meanwhile, represents the voices who are not heard on the theatre stage, the stories that aren’t often told.

"Ophelia really has no voice in Hamlet," Patterson says. "She talks very little, and most of her conversations are centred on her virginity, her female-ness. And for a play that is mostly one guy talking about whether or not he should kill himself, there’s a character who commits suicide who doesn’t get to ask those questions in front of the audience and her suicide is seen as a weakness or failure, whereas Hamlet’s contemplations of suicide are seen as brooding and interesting and wise.

"I also think that in the arts community, when you’re dealing with emotional labour, it makes it so much harder to actually do your work and get your voice heard. That’s what Ophelia represents: being stuck in a cycle where she can’t say, ‘I think about this stuff, too.’"

Hamlet isn’t the only text that inspired Inertia, and that the show is set at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival is intentional. Last July, improv performer RobYn Slade wrote a widely shared Facebook post detailing the sexually predatory behaviour she has witnessed — and experienced — during the festival, and how we can all work together to make the event enjoyable for everyone. Following a media interview with Slade, the festival issued a statement saying it stood in solidarity with any victims and commended those for coming forward.

But, to be clear, Slade’s intention was not to call out the fringe festival itself. Rather, she was looking — as Inertia will be attempting — to draw attention to the broader, systemic problem of men abusing positions of power, status or celebrity to take advantage of young women, and what we can do as a community to stop it. "The takeaway here isn’t ‘a thing happened to a person one time,’ " Slade wrote when she reshared her post this year. "It’s a dynamic."  

Patterson agrees. Inertia is set at the fringe festival, but the issues it focuses on are also bigger than the fringe, just as they are also bigger than Hamlet. "I think it’s complicated because often this discussion comes down to who, or what, or when. It’s a specific problem — but it’s also a structural problem. I think we’re hoping that by addressing it in an abstract way in this space where it’s happening, we can approach the structural aspect.

"We’re talking about theatre because that’s where we work, but these issues are present in all arts communities — and all communities, generally," she adds. "The fringe is an intense time and an intense microcosm of the way arts communities operate, so I think these things that are present everywhere can be really amplified."

The cornerstone of a festival at which "anything can happen" is freedom: freedom to create, freedom to push boundaries and a freedom to explore difficult ideas. 

"That’s the angel and the devil of this style of festival," Slade says when I called her on Tuesday. "Anybody can produce a show, so you can self-produce work that you’re trying to say something with, and no one is going to tell you that you can’t." 

The trouble begins when that freedom is misinterpreted as a permission slip to behave however one wants. "It’s a chance to let loose and do whatever we want, which can be a really positive environment, but can also be negative if it goes unchecked and unacknowledged," Patterson says.  

The press materials for Inertia include a modification to festival’s tagline: "Anything can happen — and we let it." But the "we" in that instance refers to everyone. The cast of Inertia hopes their show gets audience members thinking about the ways in which they contribute to and support these power structures, and what they can do make sure everyone gets to enjoy the magic of the fringe festival. That might look like trusting your gut when you’re out fringe-ing and you see something that looks wrong. 

"When we, as adults, are getting the ‘No’ feeling, why aren’t we stepping in?" Slade asks. "There are creeps everywhere, in every circle."   

One of the most powerful and positive aspects of the fringe festival is that shows such as Inertia can start these conversations. Slade, 31, is inspired by the Inertia cast — all in their early 20s — and the generation of fringe theatre creators coming up behind her.

"I’m proud of these people for having the words I didn’t, and for using them," she says. 

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Read more by Jen Zoratti.

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