Despite the apparent novelty, Hamlet is perhaps the Shakespearean tragic hero most often played by a woman. As Tony Howard’s excellent book sets out, women have performed the role for more than two centuries, and indeed the finest of all Hamlet films features the superlative Asta Nielsen in the role. Nonetheless, Maxine Peake’s return to the Royal Exchange marked the first opportunity I’ve had to see a woman play Hamlet on stage, and coupled with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Marcellus and the Player King also being cross-cast, the production seemed to offer fascinating potential for a revisionist take on the play’s gender politics.
That expectation was somewhat deflated, in a solid and frequently interesting production that broke very little new ground – even to the point of stating explicitly it used the text of Michael Grandage’s 2009 production. It turned its back entirely on politics (any reference to wars or Fortinbras was completely cut) and on history (the modern costuming decidedly neutral, designed for unintrusiveness rather than any purpose). What this left was an emotional domestic drama, fuelled by fine performances and a great deal of youthful energy.
The gendered casting was (perhaps deliberately inconsistent): while Marcella, Polonia and Rosencrantz were all cast along gender lines and performed as women, Peake was played gender-blind as a man. Her baggy trousers, white shirt and cropped hair went further, not only hiding Peake’s body shape (while others at this performance felt the shirt was deliberately translucent, it certainly didn’t have that effect for me) but making her look slightly undersized. Bizarrely, she reminded me of no-one so much as the little boy in Love, Actually, affecting an air of childish mischief for much of the production.
The production therefore seemed to make little of the actor’s sex, instead simply allowing Peake to take her own stab at the role. The distinctiveness came primarily through the quality of her voice, operating at a high pitch throughout and with a cracked quality that, in direct contrast to her apparent performed age, recalled the best of Judi Dench’s brittle fragility. On the large round stage of the Royal Exchange, this unfortunately led to a tendency for her lines to be lost in the auditorium’s background noise, and a greater strength in the lower register would have been welcome. However, the pitch was designed to accentuate Hamlet’s emotional quality. While the madness was feigned, this Hamlet became lost in his own illusion, allowing himself to build quickly to frenzies and sarcastic drawls, to flap (literally) and scream, to bare his soul at Ophelia’s graveside or on realising he had killed Polonia. This Hamlet acted spontaneously, having very little idea of what he was doing, a conceit that worked wonderfully until the final scene, where his utter blindness to the dynamics and betrayals of the duel left him disappointingly passive.
Peake’s impulsive young Hamlet wielded a pistol and was particularly biting with the verbal wit, treating all around him with open sarcasm and very little charm. His sexual jokes were accompanied with groin thrusts and faux masturbation, and in return he received a surprising amount of scorn – both Polonia and Osric answered his humiliations with voices dripping with contempt. The relative lack of respect seemed fuelled by a frequent guilelessness – Hamlet sat on a basket and clapped and cheered ecstatically for the players, and delivered a very late ‘To be’ in genuine remorse, shirt bloody after the murder of Polonius. He couldn’t forbear shrieking when he realised he was at Ophelia’s funeral. This gut-wrenching emotional realism may have detracted from a sense of Hamlet’s own agency, he struggling to control his response to external stimuli, but drove an intensely dramatic production. Rarely have I heard an audience gasp and cry out so much during this play.
For the characters whose gender was reversed, there was more obvious interpretive impact. Gillian Bevan played Polonia as a caricatured female politician straight out of The Thick of It, making speeches and gaffes in equal measure. Her idioms were so practiced that Ashley Zhangazha’s Laertes was able to quote them along with her, and her demeanour throughout was one of studied poise, frequently pausing to adjust her own stance or tidy her daughter’s hair. The most important impact was after her death, however, as Barbara Marten’s Gertrude brushed Ophelia’s hair as she slept off her ranting, making more explicit Gertrude’s role as an immediate mother-substitute for the young girl. The always-excellent Jodie McNee, meanwhile, was tattooed and wore heavy eyeliner and loose clothes. Alongside the bling-wearing Guildenstern (Peter Singh), Rosencrantz made clear Hamlet’s relative youth, engaging straightaway in a physical playfulness with him. Rosencrantz took Hamlet’s ‘I take no joy in man’ as a challenge, kissing him playfully but being rebutted. In this light, her later ‘you did love me once’ took on more meaning, but the two figures inevitably faded into lackeys as the play progressed.
The same was true for other characters who, while largely well played, had little chance to make much impact despite the long running time. Marten had little to do as Gertrude, offering an understated formality in public scenes and primarily concern in the closet scene. Katie West was one of the most passive Ophelias I’ve seen in some time, Hamlet walking all over her in their shared interactions. Ophelia’s quiet hurt grew into something a little more disquieting during her mad scene (shortened significantly into one appearance), where she stripped down to underwear in an attempt to display extremity through visuals rather than performance, though she succeeded in showing the character’s vulnerability. Claudius was more commanding in a bluff performance of ruthless efficiency, but was even more effective as the Ghost. Appearing in casual clothes, with hand in pockets, the Ghost was a broken and emotional figure who broke down crying in Hamlet’s arms, weeping for what was lost and leaving looking forlorn when Gertrude failed to see him.
The production’ quirkier edges emerged in some eye-catching design choices. The hanging collection of lightbulbs that flickered and hummed to indicate the presence of the Ghost were extremely effective in the three-tiered auditorium, their glow shifting from side to side to give the impression that the Ghost was somewhere but just out of neck-craning view. More bizarre was the choice to dump a huge pile of clothes from the rafters onto the stage for the grave digging scene, which the diggers organised into a pit. Bundles stood for skulls (why?) and Ophelia’s body was played by a folded dress. This oddly theatrical design choice fitted poorly with the relatively literal design elsewhere, and left the stage cluttered for the final duel. However, Michelle Butterly and Jodie McNee as a pair of Scouse gravediggers were amusingly down to earth as they traded pedantry.
Much more interesting was the use of the Exchange’s Young Company for the Players. Led by Claire Benedict, who gave a tremendous reading of the Homeric speech accompanied by a soundtrack of distant thunder, the players featured a cast of very young children who performed the dumb show with overblown gestures and an endearing enthusiasm, going through the simple motions of the more complex plot. A group of older teenagers then introduced the main play by screaming in the onstage audience’s faces and into a microphone, before passing over to senior members of the Young Company for the play itself. Reversing the genders of the Player King and Queen was particularly effective, distancing the inset play from the events it commented on while also exaggerating the vulnerability of the poisoned victim and the youthful naivety of Ben Stott’s ‘Queen’.
The joy of this Hamlet was its pace and enthusiasm, but this was also its weakness inasfar as the production struggled for a variety of tone. Set pieces such as the nunnery scene, the closet scene and the final duel were rather dully choreographed and did not stand out from the generally heightened pace throughout, leaving the responsibility for lending emphasis entirely to Peake. What this production achieved, then, was a platform for an emotionally intuitive and well-realised rendition of the title character in as local a context as possible, allowing Hamlet’s passions and anguish to shape the contours of the whole. While my preference would have been for a production with a clearer sense of purpose, this was efficient and gripping emotional storytelling, and a resounding success in the auditorium.