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Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Lauren Gunderson on her new play, A Room in the Castle, about the women of Hamlet

Lauren Gunderson. Photo by Bryan Derballa.

The Reading Room is a Folger Theatre festival of new plays inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare. Leading up to the four-play inaugural festival of readings and talks (January 19 – 21), we’re doing a Q&A series with the playwrights involved.

Lauren Gunderson’s new play, A Room in the Castle, rebrands the stories of the women of Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a drama with music and defiant hope for the future. Read our Q&A with her below and get your tickets for The Reading Room.

The Folger Theatre reading of A Room in the Castle, with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, will be directed by Eddie DeHais, with Michele Osherow as dramaturg. The cast features Erika Rose as Gertrude, Chani Werely as Ophelia, and Tamieka Chavis as Tatiana (Ophelia’s handmaid).

Lauren Gunderson is one of the most produced playwrights in America. She is a two-time winner of the Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award for I and You and The Book of Will, the winner of the Lanford Wilson Award and the Otis Guernsey New Voices Award, a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and John Gassner Award for Playwriting, and a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s Residency with Marin Theatre Company. Read her full bio.

What’s the story behind the creation of your play and its early life? What was your process? 

I had always been frustrated at Ophelia’s character: the abuse she suffers, the sudden madness, the untimely death at her own hand. I longed to see Gertrude and Ophelia together in private. What would they discuss? What secrets might they share? What do they really think of Hamlet and Polonius? This launched the idea of my play A Room in the Castle, which expanded into a blend of Shakespeare, intergenerational feminism, and women’s survival in a violent patriarchy. But the joy of this play is the humor, teasing, and surprising revelations the women are able to share with each other precisely because they are not in public, but are in a safe privacy of their own. Truths come out in private spaces when public spaces are not safe.

Were there any particular problems or knots in Shakespeare’s works that you wanted to wrestle with in your play? Any particular opportunities that arose in spring boarding off Shakespeare? What are you hoping that audiences will take away from this play? 

I spent a lot of my life watching the play Hamlet from the perspective of Ophelia. But lately I’ve felt much more allegiance and concern for Gertrude. I began to contemplate what it must be like to look at your son and be so shocked and dismayed by the violence and mayhem he’s capable of and think: Did I do this? Is this my fault? Whether either of their choices are justified or not, being the mother of a son like Hamlet is a fascinating and existential problem to have. This maternal conflict allowed me to find real curves and nuance to her character in my play that particularly thrilled and ignited me.

What are you hoping to learn from The Reading Room? What’s next for you and your play? 

I’m particularly excited to work on the transitional scenes which integrate parts of Shakespeare’s play into mine. We are testing out a few ideas in this reading to this end, and this exact kind of experimentation is the reason for and delight of this kind of early development process.

Anything else that you’d like readers and audience members to know about you and/or your play? 

I was inspired by all the music Ophelia presents in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and really leaned into that idea of her as a creative spirit. In my play Ophelia is a real musician, the kind that stays up late writing songs in her room, or practices singing in the bath. My version of Ophelia imagines her as a frustrated artist that is hemmed in by her father, the king, and a patriarchy that uses her but does not support her. But because we are in Ophelia‘s private space we get to see her sing, compose, and play music of her own making. The song I’ve written for her was based on the lyrical and rhythmic structure of the song she sings in Shakespeare’s play.