The Iconic Drama
What else can be said about “Hamlet” that has not been said over and over? It is Shakespeare’s most iconic work and the ultimate play about loyalty, love, betrayal, murder and madness. Every production is defined by its lead actor. Here is a new approach. This is a stripped back, fresh and fast-paced staging by Sarah Frankcom for Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. Maxine Peake has created a Hamlet that is both timeless and unique for today. Though the part has a long history of being performed by women, Peake is the first female actor to be cast in a major production since Frances de la Tour played the dark prince some forty years ago.
The London Times says that this production is “a triumph of re-invention…intimate and intense” and “stunningly good” and the Guardian Online calls it a “terrifically fast, fluent, attacking production.”
Taking a classic play and swapping the traditional genders can be dangerous or look a little gimmicky. Peake’s performance was filmed live in Manchester and beamed live to cinemas, and now that’s been brought to DVD. And Peake isn’t the only character where the person playing the role isn’t the traditional gender, with Polonius becoming a woman (Polonia), as does Rosencrantz. Interestingly though, while Polonius becomes very definitely a female character, Peake’s character retains the play’s male pronouns but it’s played in a way that is neither specifically male nor female. It is somewhere beyond gender, with Peake bringing out both the masculine and feminine of a character that is perhaps one of the greatest explorations of humanity ever written.
What’s perhaps most surprising is how little it changes the play. We see how the character of Hamlet isn’t about gender or being a man, it is about being human, bored, frustrated, uncertain, indecisive and melancholy. Peake is slightly mixed in the role, with her raging, angry Hamlet sometimes feeling as if it’s close to being one-note and with the volume left on too high. That said, during her quieter moments she can be quite inspired, including the best ‘Alas poor Yorick’ scene that I’ve ever seen.
Actors usually choose whether Hamlet’s insanity is real or feigned, but Peake often seems uncertain, hoping that the words alone will take care of it. It’s not completely her fault , as the play itself never resolves this, with Hamlet sometimes seeming totally rational while playing at madness and other times as if he really has had a complete mental breakdown and only thinks he’s still in control of his own mind. Usually it’s played one way or the other. Sometimes Peake’s on the verge of something brilliant, where it feels that she is sane, but that the stress of her situation is in imminent danger of pushing her completely over the edge. That only comes through in fits and starts, but when it does it’s exciting.
Unfortunately the rest of the production is missing something. By removing most of the political machinations of the play, such as a foreign prince marching across Denmark to go to war with another nation works sometimes but not always. The production doesn’t fully get to grips with the complexities and contradictions of the play. Most of the supporting actors were very powerful with some wonderful comic touches and simple staging.
Maxine Peake is sublime. Hamlet is usually acknowledged as the toughest challenge an actor will ever undertake and it is three hour plus in language that is both familiar and unfamiliar to us today. Regardless of what I said earlier the production is solid, the cast is quite capable and there are some wonderful humorous touches.