Anna Cummer offers up a new take on an old favourite with Hamlet: A Ghost Story

Adapting a script is no easy task, and even more complex when you’re tackling work by someone as iconic as Shakespeare in an effort to make it palatable to today’s audiences, but Anna Cummer has done just that. Hamlet: A Ghost Story, presented by The Shakespeare Company with Hit + Myth Productions, is Cummer’s take on the much-loved play in which she, along with director Craig Hall, pulls the focus from our favourite Dane’s descent into madness to the haunting of Hamlet, taking the story into the 1900s and crafting it into more of a mystery.

“We’ve concentrated more on the haunting aspect of (the play),” says Cummer, “and that also explains a lot of moments of ‘madness.’ ”

Considering that Hamlet’s state of mind is traditionally one of the driving forces within the play, skewing the storyline towards the haunting of Hamlet and the effects upon him is a fascinating re-examination of the text. “It’s interesting to me because connotations (around madness) have changed, they have shifted in the past 400 years,” Cummer explains. “So by concentrating more on the idea that he is being haunted and that’s being misinterpreted as insanity or madness, I feel like we’ve kind of crafted (the story) a little bit. It’s an incredibly difficult complex character and play, but that’s also part of the beauty and challenge of it.”

With a story that is so popular and well-known, there’s not much of a “whodunnit” to this mystery, so the task with this adaptation was to create a different Hamlet experience for audiences. “We’re sort of walking that fine line between that sane madness and psychotic breaks that are instigated by this haunting,” explains Cummer. “Most people who are coming into the show, they know the story, they know whodunnit, they know how this is going to go, so the challenge for us is to present the same story but to do it in a new way that can be enlightening or surprising, or something that has not been connected to Hamlet before.”

Also challenging is presenting a streamlined version of a play that traditionally clocks in at around four hours, making it tolerable for modern audiences who Cummer admits, “just do not have the same attention spans as Shakespeare’s audience 400 years ago.” To that point, you won’t see many of the historical references that fill the background in the original text, which, as Cummer points out, is almost necessary in order to keep the play relevant, including the impending Norwegian invasion on Denmark.

Cummer goes one further step in modernizing the text by switching up the genders of some of the characters in the play, Polonius and Horatio, which she found very fitting when considering that, at the turn of the century, women’s roles were starting to shift in society, the foundations of the women’s movement to come slowly forming. “It’s fascinating, when you take these … archetypal male characters, and you turn them into women and you put them into 1900 Denmark, it creates the type of tension that we are maybe missing from the outside invading force (Norway), where you have these people who are trying to make headway in a society that’s not allowing them to do it.”

The lead role of Hamlet is performed by Ahad Raza Mir, a former Calgarian who has achieved great success as an actor in Pakistan, and who was already known to Cummer and Hall from working with him on an earlier production of Macbeth, and who seemed like the perfect choice for the role of the Hamlet. “He’s just such a lovely human being, very thoughtful, an amazing actor and when it came to casting his name came up and Craig was like, ‘That’s a really interesting choice,’ just because of his sensibility of who he is, and just sort of a good man, thoughtful. I think essentially that is the problem with Hamlet, is that he is a good man being asked to do something that is so far outside his character, that’s why he wrestles with it as much as he does, so it seemed like a really good fit.”

Cummer is confident that this production would do The Bard proud. “He was the king of taking a story and changing it for his own usage, for his own message, for his own delight, and we’re still doing that today, we’re taking his words, we’re taking his plots, and we’re changing them for our own messages, our own delight.” 

(Photo courtesy The Shakespeare Company.)

Hamlet: A Ghost Story runs at The Studio at Vertigo Theatre until April 13.

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring The Culture Cycle event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE. Contact her at