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Method in madness of Hamlet reboot

Twin directors look at Shakespeare tragedy from feminist perspective

A new production of Hamlet seeks to recharge Shakespeare’s often-staged tragedy by casting a woman in the title role.

Identical twins Kailey and Sam Spear are the brains behind BlackSpear Productions. For their unorthodox take on Hamlet, which runs until Nov. 9 at the Shop Theatre, they hand-picked New York-trained actress Libby Osler to portray the melancholy Danish prince (now princess). Three other characters traditionally represented by men are also being played by women in this production — Laertes, Rosencrantz and Marcello (now Marcella).

The 25-year-old sisters hope their genderswap casting will shake up the character dynamics and allow audience members familiar with the classic work to experience the play in a new way.

“The play is often put on a pedestal and we really wanted people to watch it and to see it fresh and new,” Kailey explains.

Switching the sex of certain characters has allowed the Spear sisters to create complex roles for women in a play that traditionally has only two female cast members — Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his love interest Ophelia (both of whom are women in this production).

“It’s really nice to see well-rounded female characters because you don’t get a lot in theatre or film,” Kailey explains. “It’s tricky to find well-crafted female roles just in general.”

The story takes place in the present day in a fictitious and “Hollywood-esque” Denmark, Kailey says. Born with celebrity status and facing constant public scrutiny, this modern royal finds herself swarmed by paparazzi and uses social media to shape her image. The theatre set features a multimedia component that flashes Twitter updates, newspaper articles and magazine covers.

Hamlet, which is being co-produced by Renegade Productions, marks Kailey and Sam’s theatre direction debut. The sisters grew up on Bowen Island and attended Tir-na-nog Theatre School where they had the chance to perform Hamlet in Grade 8 (Sam played Horatio; Kailey was Guildenstern and a gravedigger).

“That was really nice, being exposed to it so early. You know, we understood half of what was going on, but it gave us that base for when we got into high school and studied it in Grade 12,” Kailey says.

The sisters graduated from Simon Fraser University’s film program in 2012 and although both of their careers have since focused on film, they decided to return to their theatre roots and co-direct a stage production of Hamlet — something they’ve been wanting to do for a long time. Despite the gender reversals and modern-day setting, their production stays true to Shakespeare’s original text (minus the gendered pronouns) and the major themes of betrayal, revenge, love and loyalty remain.

“It’s amazing how well it translates into a contemporary setting. It deals with so many life obstacles and struggles,” Kailey says, noting that certain themes become more obvious with a female protagonist. The contrast between appearance versus reality, for example, is something this Hamlet struggles with as a female celebrity in a culture obsessed with superficial beauty.

“Everybody has an opinion on Hamlet. Everybody knows the story, or thinks they know the story, but we really just want the audience to take in these characters as fresh new characters,” Kailey says.

Both sisters say their casting decision has allowed them to appreciate just how complex, dynamic and still relevant Hamlet really is.

“Hopefully with [Hamlet] being a female, people will be able to re-see the character and re-see the experiences that this character’s going through,” Sam says. “Shakespeare’s such an amazing writer that there is so much to find in there.”

BlackSpear Productions presents Hamlet, until Nov. 9 at the Shop Theatre, 125 East Second Ave. Tickets at theshophamlet.brownpapertickets.com.