Hamlet review – Maxine Peake is a delicately ferocious Prince of Denmark

Royal Exchange, Manchester
The gender switches in Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet may unsettle for a moment but they do not distort the play

At her Peake: a stage career in pictures

Michael Billington’s review: ‘emotional directness’

In pictures: 45 Hamlets for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday

Her face gleams keenly under an immaculate, straw-coloured David Bowie barnet. She wears a dark blue trouser suit that might have been imagined by a fashion-conscious Chairman Mao. She is a stripling prince, almost pre-sexual, who glides, without swagger and without girlishness. Straightaway, Maxine Peake knocks on the head one of the paradoxes of Hamlet. The speeches that come out of the prince’s mouth are about dissolving, yet the person who delivers them has to be the most distinct, intense character on stage.

Peake’s delicate ferocity, her particular mixture of concentration and lightness, ensure that you want to follow her whenever she appears. Anger is her keynote. Her voice is reedy with indignation. The speeches tumble out at high speed, as if she is surprised by her own fervour. Some dark and disturbing notes she does not hit. She is precise rather than cloudy, cutting rather than meditative. She is a damn good fencer.

This is not the apex of Peake’s stage career, but then the bar is high. She will be hard-put to equal the incandescent fervour she mustered when delivering Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy, directed by Sarah Frankcom at last year’s Manchester international festival. Still, it is a considerable achievement, and the more prominent as hers is the first female Hamlet on a major stage since Frances de la Tour 35 years ago. At first that does not seem surprising, but there is a long, strong tradition of women performing the role, which can hardly be said to demand Schwarzenegger attributes. Sarah Siddons took it on in Manchester in 1777. Victorian actresses, amateur and professional, played the part regularly. Sarah Bernhardt, the first actress to be filmed in the part, declared it should always be performed by a woman.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, 1899.

Tony Howard’s interesting programme note suggests that the dip in female Hamlets in the supposedly feminist 20th century is due to the rise in importance of directors, until recently usually male. That seems right. Put two women in charge of theatres – Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange and Josie Rourke at the Donmar – and there is a sudden burst of parts for women over 40 by cross-gender casting. This autumn, two years after she appeared at the Donmar as Brutus, Harriet Walter will star there as Henry IV.

Frankcom is in effect creating England’s first mainstream feminist theatre. She has done so not only by cross-casting but by her choice of plays, among them The Last Days of Troy and Orlando. Her production of Hamlet has a Player Queen (the powerful and mellifluous Claire Benedict), female gravediggers (Michelle Butterly is a jaunty scouser) and a knowing biker of a Rosencrantz (Jodie McNee). Gillian Bevan makes her courtly adviser (“Polonia”) a fusspot, continually tweaking her dark suit into place and accompanying her orotund phrases with redundant flourishes of her hands. She is highly entertaining, though not a major contributor to the sinisterness of Elsinore. These gender switches may unsettle for a moment but they do not distort the play. At least, not unless you think that “to be, or not to be” can only refer to people with penises.

Amanda Stoodley’s design provides some distracting moments. Ophelia’s grave is a jumble of garments. Why? Does this refer to apparel oft proclaiming the man? Yet it supplies a marvellous entry for the Ghost. John Shrapnel, doubling as an impressive, stentorian Claudius, is heralded by the lowering of a forest of lightbulbs which, accompanied by a clanging chime, glow and fade to the bewilderment of watchers. In general the staging is simple, in line with a stripped-down text that has no Fortinbras in it and therefore little political content. As someone who never holds her breath for Fortinbras to appear, I find this more a theoretical than actual diminishment. The important thing is that Hamlet should take you into its speech, and so into the archaeology of everyday conversation. Which this production does, clearly, energetically though not superlatively.

At her Peake: a stage career in pictures

Michael Billington’s review: ‘emotional directness’

In pictures: 45 Hamlets for Shakespeare’s 450th birthday

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hamlet review – Maxine Peake stresses character with a caustic, spry prince

Sarah Frankcom's modern-dress production confirms the star's capacity for fierce, uncensored honesty, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

17, Sep, 2014 @12:16 AM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire review – Maxine Peake is a breathtaking Blanche
Peake excels as the disintegrating southern belle in Sarah Frankcom’s fine production of the Tennessee Williams classic

Michael Billington

13, Sep, 2016 @11:45 PM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire review – Maxine Peake stalks to the heart of Blanche DuBois
Maxine Peake’s creative partnership with the Royal Exchange hits another high in Tennessee Williams’s classic

Susannah Clapp

18, Sep, 2016 @7:10 AM

Article image
Maxine Peake to star in A Streetcar Named Desire in Manchester
Exclusive: Actor will portray troubled Blanche DuBois in Sarah Frankcom production of Tennessee Williams play

Chris Wiegand

24, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca review – Maxine Peake’s tribute to Hull’s headscarf revolutionaries
Peake’s rich new play, with music by the Unthanks, tells the story of the Hull women who fought the government on fishermen’s safety and won

Clare Brennan

12, Nov, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Maxine Peake: ‘I’d like a go at playing Henry V. Yeah! Who knows?’
As her Hamlet heads to cinemas, Maxine Peake talks about a sweet prince inspired by Bowie, returning to the Royal Court and starring as a 70s standup

Interview by Chris Wiegand

04, Feb, 2015 @7:22 AM

Article image
Maxine Peake’s play Queens of the Coal Age to get stage premiere
True story of four women who occupied Lancashire colliery in 1993 set for run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

15, Nov, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
How to Hold Your Breath review – ragbag dystopia starring Maxine Peake
Peake is the one bright spark in Zinnie Harris’s muddled state-of-the-world drama

Susannah Clapp

15, Feb, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Happy Days review – a pragmatic rejig
Royal Exchange, Manchester
Maxine Peake stars as Winnie in a production that isn’t quite what Beckett ordered

Clare Brennan

03, Jun, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Light Falls; The Antipodes; Botticelli in the Fire – review
Sarah Frankcom signs off in Manchester with elegiac Simon Stephens and a little bit of Jarvis Cocker

Susannah Clapp

03, Nov, 2019 @8:00 AM