Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo Jonathan Keenan

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it. Continue reading

Photo of the week: Frances de la Tour as Hamlet (1979)

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

Frances de la Tour as Hamlet. Photo Donald Cooper

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.” Continue reading

Cross gender casting in theatre: the facts (as I made them up)

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

Forbes Masson as Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo Simon Annand

There has been media discussion lately about cross gender casting, mainly because high profile actresses talked about their desire to play male roles. This is surprising to me. The fact this kind of statement generates headlines that is, not the desire itself. Why would you be an actor and not want to play everything? And equally, why is suspension of disbelief perceived as problematic when it involves gender?

So I decided to think through some of the joys and challenges of cross gender casting. I did almost no research, so feel free to dispute any of my statements and I am sure everyone’s examples will be richer than mine.

1) Some of the discussion is tied with gender inequality and the small number of female roles in classical theatre. While this is true (and inequality isn’t always addressed in modern theatre either), is that poor justification for what is an artistic decision? Truth is, cross gender casting is far more exciting than that and can jolt the imagination in interesting directions, including – but not limited to – plays where gender politics have a central role. The recent The Taming of the Shrew at the Royal Shakespeare Company – with men playing women and women playing men – and The Shed’s Blurred Lines – with its all female cast playing all roles – are good examples. Continue reading