Tuesday, 21 July 2015
I fucking love Maxine Peake.
That statement alone could have been my entire review for her headline grabbing performance at Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange last year, but I feel compelled to write more. After all, at just over three hours in length, this staging - recently broadcast on cinemas and on Sky Arts - deserves it.
What many of those headlines failed to grab last year was that in casting Peake to play 'the Dane', director Sarah Frankcom was doing nothing unusual. There are several precedents here, including of course Sarah Siddons who also took the role to Manchester in 1777 and Sarah Bernhardt who performed it for film in 1899 and declared the part should always be played by a woman, but what is worth recalling is the fact that this is the first female Hamlet on a major stage in 35 years, when Frances de la Tour took the role. What is truly groundbreaking her is the fact that Frankcom seems to single-handedly be creating a prominent wave of the most exciting, invigorating feminist theatre here in the UK and with Peake in particular, she has her most effective muse.
As my opening statement attests I am a huge fan of Maxine Peake. I find her talent staggering and her politics an inspiration. That said, I am more familiar with her work on TV, film and radio than I am on the stage so this was a real eye opener. Her Hamlet struck me as a most spell binding cross between David Bowie and Glenda Jackson; a trans prince who glides will-o'-the-wisp like through the court of Elsinore, exuding mercurial danger, uttering ribald lively humour with a reedy tone and possessing a bipolar spirit that is palpably intense. But it's not just Hamlet's mental state that can be considered erratic and fickle and Peake plays the role with fluid gender; "Hamlet was born a girl but very quickly didn’t feel that fitted. He very quickly took on a male mantle. Of course everyone in the court was shocked and divided...and that unspoken feeling serves as a backdrop for the production." Clearly this Hamlet was effectively a person to be tolerated long before succumbing to the grief which the death of his/her father caused and the bitter cynicism his/her mother's swift marriage brought about.
But the gender bending production does not stop at its central titular role and Frankcom offers us Claire Benedict as both the Player Queen (with an ensemble featuring thrash metal and the most cutest of children) and a 'Marcello' rather than Marcellus, a pair of scouse female gravediggers, tipping the wink to Manchester's nearest city and rival, played by Michelle Butterly - who incorporates the distinctly un-Shakespearean 'Ar-ey' - and Jodie McNee, the later of whom pops up as a hipsterish coke dealing Rosencrantz. But it's Gillian Bevan who takes the role of Polonius and brings us her Polonia who is perhaps the most noteworthy of gender changes after of course Hamlet. Played as an officious, pompous buffoon in a neat dark business suit, forever cowing to the royals she obeys, she reminded me a little - perhaps intentionally, given that Salford is just down the road - of that self serving, needlessly orotund female in high office herself, Hazel Blears MP. It's an entertaining turn and gains much laughter from the skillful eking out of the play's humour, especially when floundering against the ferocity and crudity of Peake's Prince.
These reversals may initially surprise and unsettle, but the production is quick to put us at our ease and if anything the gender swap adds a greater resonance to Shakespeare's piece. Maybe Bernhardt was right?
Peake naturally and rightly gained all the plaudits, but this is far from a one woman show. I was especially impressed with Katie West's utterly sympathetic and heartbreaking performance of Ophelia, perhaps one of the finest Ophelia's I have seen in fact, whilst Barbara Marten and John Shrapnel provide a suitably impervious regal pair as Gertrude and Claudius. Shrapnel doubles up as Hamlet's slain father too and praise must also go to Amanda Stoodley’s design, heralding his ethereal arrival by the descent of what can only be described as the hanging vines of lightbulbs, glowing brightly one minute and fading the next to signify the waxing and waning of this apparition to Hamlet's eyes.
Overall the staging is simple, characters wear modern dress with just an essence of retro aristocracy a'la Adam Ant for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Peake's Hamlet adopts a Thin White Duke aura; a crisp white shirt beneath a uniform blue tunic that would not have looked out of place in Michael Radford's 1984. Nothing detracts the viewer from the speech which is as it should be; after all, 'the play's the thing' as Hamlet indeed says.