Tonight it’s the first performance of Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Manchester, undoubtedly one of the most exciting theatrical propositions of recent months, and definitely the Hamlet I most look forward to.
The last notable female Hamlet produced in the UK was in 1979 at the Half Moon theatre, with Frances de la Tour in the title role. It’s alarming to think that’s 35 years ago, which means no one at my age could be reasonably expected to have seen a woman play the part.
This is what Plays and Players wrote about the Frances de la Tour production:
“In a square room flanked by props and scenery around the walls the audience is ushered to stand or sit wherever they can. It was soon realised once the production had got under way that there was nowhere safe to sit. The steps leading to a raised platform were the way to the castle battlements where the ghost of the late King Hamlet walks and where silver reflectors pick up the eerie light thrown from his shroud. A stage to the left of it becomes the room in Polonius’s house, a corridor in the castle, the stage where the Players enact the murder of the King, the Queen’s apartment and where it dips and rises on a slant, a panel is removed to disclose the grave where Ophelia will lie. At the corner is another part of Polonius’s house and along the wall from that an enormous throne, like a carved seated skeleton of a man.”
“De la Tour’s Hamlet was tall, stooped, unglamorous, and from the streets. Greased dark hair in lank tangles; her sleeveless jacket was like a Hell’s Anglel’s, leaving arms and upper chest bare.” (…) “After years of training at the RSC she had a unique vocal range. Hamlet’s voice could be nasal or liquid, sarcastically sharp or a deep sob of contained grief”.
And at another section of the book: “De la Tour did not deny the prince’s gender or her own; rather Hamlet was the one body of integrity in a market where flesh was the currency of corruption: masculinity and femininity were redundant terms when Hamlet was the only surviving member of the human race”.
The production opened on 18 October 1979, it was directed by Robert Walker and the cast was:
Frances de la Tour as Hamlet
Peter Attard as Bernado/Reynaldo/Guildenstern/Osric
Sam Cox as Claudius
Maggie Steed as Gertude
Robin Soans as Horatio
Matthew Robertson as Laertes/Leading Player
Andrew de la Tour as Marcellus/Rozencrantz/Gravedigger
Judy Lloyd as Ophelia
Robin Hooper as Polonius