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REVIEW: Hamlet, Royal Exchange Theatre

Lucy Tomlinson thinks Maxine Peake may play an angry young (wo)man, but gender is fast forgotten

Written by . Published on September 20th 2014.

REVIEW: Hamlet, Royal Exchange Theatre

IT'S A standard career move.

Celebrated actor getting just a little too popular on screen decides to beef up critical acclaim by taking on Hamlet (see: Tennant, D; Law, J; Cummerbatch, B). 

 But this is Hamlet with a difference – played by a woman no less.

Peake is incredible to look at. Her white blonde cropped hair and hollow cheekbones set against androgynous blue garb give it a look of The Man Who Fell to Earth-era David Bowie.

Silk, Shameless and The Village star and all-round northern favourite Maxine Peake has added her name to the list of those who have taken on the Dane and won. But from some of the mutterings out there in internet-land you might think she's given the whole of Shakespearean tradition a good kick in the oversized codpiece.

This is silly when you think Shakespeare plays have featured actors of falsidical gender manifestation (by which we mean reedy adolescent boys donning a frock) since the Big Guy sat down and scratched his lines.

So to reassure the grumblers, hackles firmly up at the director’s mention of the word ‘re-imagining’, let me tell you that this is no Hamletta. It’s the original text (with cuts) and Hamlet is a male character who happens to be played by a woman (though confusingly Peake has hinted that he is a woman presenting as a man, no matter, within the play he is treated as a man, and as everyone knows, 'the play’s the thing').

Honestly, there wasn’t all this fuss when Mark Rylance played Olivia in Twelfth Night a couple of years ago.

Like Rylance’s Olivia, there is something about the ambiguity of being played by the opposite sex that only serves to increase the charisma and sheer attractiveness of the character.

Peake plays Hamlet as a nervy, angry young (wo)man who while maybe not be mad is definitely a little strange, a bundle of tense energy and verbal tics – at once irritatingly cocksure and endearingly vulnerable.

Peake is incredible to look at. Her white blonde cropped hair and hollow cheekbones set against androgynous blue garb give it a look of The Man Who Fell to Earth-era David Bowie with a little Northern Soul styling thrown in for good measure. Her performance is powerful and assured, the only problem seems to be her voice taking a beating.

Peake as HamletPeake as Hamlet

But the gender-bending doesn’t stop here. We also get a female Polonius, Gravediggers, Player King and Rosencrantz. All are commendable but my favourite was Gillian Bevan as Polonia, a Thick of It-style humour to the role, politico and simpering buffoon in one.

Hamlet isn’t known for its laughs but she definitely raised a few.

The set design is full of clever tricks, some successful – the sound and light announcing the presence of the ghost was satisfyingly eerie – some less so.

I kind of got the idea about the clothes/gravepit referencing both Polonia’s famous ‘clothes maketh the man’ homily and Ophelia’s soggy end, but it was a bit too abstract for me. And the Yorick’s skull is bound to divide the audience into witty versus weird.

One idea that works well is casting John Shrapnel as both Claudius and the Ghost, pointing up how both these wily old men, full of their own dark needs, manipulate the young and idealistic to their own ends.

Shrapnel has just the right voice and calculating demeanour for the part of Claudius (and therefore his brother), and together with Barbara Marten as glamorous Gertrude forms part of Elsinore’s premier power couple, apparently keeping it together while everything, and everyone, else falls apart. Katie West as Ophelia gives good bonkers, pulled apart by forces greater than herself without being pathetic or trying.

Rather than other plays, Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet put me in mind of watching TV blockbusters such as Game of Thrones or House of Cards.

Purists may baulk at such a comparison, but it’s hardly a surprise that modern drama which we find admirable and compelling reverberates with shades of the Bard. The staging is slick, powerful and most of all ambitious.

There may be quibbles with the casting but anyone who goes to see this production will quickly forget about gender and be immersed in character. Just as Shakespeare meant them to be.

Hamlet runs at the Royal Exchange until 25 October 2014.

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