The Globe has uploaded its 2018 production of Hamlet for virtual coronavirus viewing directed by Michelle Terry, then in her first summer as Artistic Director. It’s a brave Hamlet: the eponymous prince is played by a woman (Terry herself), as are Laertes and Horatio. Ophelia is played by a man. Terry sticks to the Globe’s traditional bare stage, but makes ample use of their costume box: Hamlet’s “antic disposition” receives a clown-like makeover. Terry’s direction succeeds in bringing out the funny parts of the play which serve to lighten the tragedy; the “pipe” scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is particularly effective. But her gender-blind casting (one of the great themes of her time at The Globe) leads this production into serious difficulties.

Horatio is something of an outsider: he is better friends with Hamlet than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but is trusted less by the Danish court because of this. He is the first person whom the watchkeepers tell about the ghost, but it will no more speak to him than anyone else: while he is trusted by Hamlet, he is not the prince himself. In the Second Quarto, Hamlet tells Horatio “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, but in the Folio this becomes “our philosophy”; Horatio is perpetually suspended between complete inclusion in Hamlet’s mind, madness, and friendship, and rapid and radical exclusion from it all.

Unlike the other characters of the Danish court, we do not know of his family or history. The production which best dealt with Horatio’s difficult place in the play was Simon Godwin’s RSC 2016 Hamlet; Horatio was the only white actor on stage in a version of the play which managed to make the world’s best-known story new. In contrast, idly swapping the gender of Horatio to match that of Hamlet feels lazy and ill-thought out; perhaps keeping Horatio as a man might have better opened up some of the tricky dynamics between the two characters.

The same could be said of Laertes’ and Ophelia’s gender-switches; Terry attempts to upend the brother-sister power dynamic, but paradoxically reinforces it. Having a woman play Laertes is something of a moot-point once Hamlet and Horatio have been cast; as the same gender they form a coherent image of the “new generation”. But surely the duel between Laertes and Hamlet would only have been enhanced by adding a new gender dynamic if Laertes remained a man? Moreover, it seems ridiculous to have Fortinbras played by a man when he is a key foil for Hamlet throughout the play.

With Ophelia’s gender-switch, it is important to remember that Shakespeare’s audience would have seen a young man play the character; the change should not feel as dramatic as it does. And yet, for modern audiences, we are much more used to seeing women-playing-men as “serious”, and men-playing-women as pantomime-territory. This is probably the result of our collective cultural prejudices, and Shubham Saraf plays the part with such convincing frailty and sadness to waylay any fears of a drag-inspired Ophelia. But, all the same, I cannot help but think that if Terry was truly aiming to break apart Hamlet and its expectations, a non-heterosexual relationship might have been more effective.

All of these bug-bears and problems beg the question: why? Why has Terry made gender the focus of the production? Hamlet is a play that questions gender with its endless “son” puns and concerns over frailty and inaction, but Shakespeare’s concern is always about differences between what appears and what is felt. Hamlet’s “unmanly” grief and inaction is made significant by his appearance as a man on stage; his gender is an uneasy costume. By having a woman in male clothes play Hamlet, this performative aspect is brought to light. And, indeed, Terry is adept at the role: her volatile Hamlet is one to contend with. But, regardless, the gender-swaps for nearly everyone else in the cast undermine her impact. Terry’s play is not one informed by the subtleties of gender; it is obsessed, compelled, and misguidedly driven by it.

The point could be made that this is a free, online performance of a very good play: the Globe is kindly trying to assuage our national boredom, and I’m needlessly dissecting it in order to find something to say. But, if we’re no longer allowed to frivolously criticise and idly imagine our own, truly ground-breaking Hamlets, then coronavirus will have taken everything. Always look a gift-play in the mouth.