Lissy Lovett went to Manchester to see Sarah Frankcom’s new production of Hamlet with Maxine Peake, and is really glad she did.
Hamlet, Shakespeare’s tragedy about a Danish prince, is my favourite play. I love all of its layers, the different angles you can take on it, and how each time I see a new production I notice something new. Reading about the famous female Hamlets of old, Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt, I’ve always wanted to see a woman in the part. So I was really excited when the Manchester Royal Exchange announced that Maxine Peake would be playing Hamlet in a production directed by Sarah Frankcom; I was poised ready when the tickets went on sale to buy two for the first Saturday matinee.
I was absolutely blown away by this production. No Hamlet is ever perfect or definitive, there’s so much in the play that that just isn’t possible, but for me this version is right up there as one of the best that I’ve ever seen.
It can be the case that actors known more for their TV work don’t excel on the stage. I’ve seen actors mumble, rely on a limited range of emotions or acting tricks and fail to reach past the second row with their performance. Peake’s better than this. Her voice has the most amazing clarity and depth, each syllable was discrete and present, and there were lots of excellent single line readings within a well thought out and executed overarching thought process. One of her first soliloquies, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt”, was as new and as exciting as if it had been written yesterday, or spoken to you over a cafe table by your best friend. She’s a brittle, self-deprecating and funny Hamlet.
The production as a whole is fast-paced and sparse. Frankcom hasn’t been afraid to make bold cuts. The whole of the Fortinbras political situation is entirely gone, so the production focuses only on a few main characters in their own private nightmare. The set, lighting, sound design and props are deceptively simple, and there’s some really clever symbolism and a couple of moments of staging (I won’t give them away in case you’re off to see it soon) which literally made me gasp.
The Royal Exchange is an absolutely beautiful theatre; the 1970s rebuilt in-the-round auditorium sits in the old exchange building like some kind of alien spaceship from the planet Theatre. Watching such an emotionally charged play, it really helped to be in such a focussed space. And being in that unusual space related back to one of the themes of Hamlet: being on the outside looking in and whether you’re aware or not of the game you’re playing.
Hamlet is in some ways an everyman figure. Some of her soliloquies are perfect descriptions of mental health issues and she speaks of grief, love, disappointment, hope and anger in truthful and endlessly touching ways. Peake played her not as a woman, nor as a woman playing a man, and not quite even as a man, but simply as a human undergoing the most enormous mental strain. Peake is aided in this with a slightly weird and off-beat costume and an androgynous haircut, so you focus more on what she’s going through than whether she’s meant to be a man or a woman. For me the almost genderless presentation of the character brought out even more the honesty and directness of Shakespeare’s writing.
There’s something about slightly reframing the play that emphasises and clarifies characters and relationships. In this production Polonius is played as Polonia brilliantly by Gillian Bevan and this worked perfectly. There was a touch of Margaret Thatcher in the way that Polonia politicked, stratigised and made laboured jokes throughout the court. Being a mother, rather than a father, emphasised her cruelty of Ophelia; using her daughter to further her own career to the ultimate detriment of Ophelia’s mental health and life.
In this production the Ophelia scenes were particularly well done. It’s always very difficult for me to empathise with the Shakespearian woman who tops herself as soon as the going gets tough, but I found myself shedding a tear during the Ophelia mad scene, and the earlier library dialogue was excellent. On some level too I’m sure there’s an extra frisson at seeing someone who I know to be a woman spit “God has given you one face and you make yourselves another” at Ophelia, beautifully played by Katie West. There’s more than a suggestion here that Hamlet is violent towards Ophelia, this is a Hamlet who’s been used to getting his own way.
All the cast are excellent. Barbara Marten as Gertrude was fantastic. She has a natural gravitas and it felt like she was an agent of her own destiny. Gertrude can sometimes come over rather as a slightly silly woman who doesn’t know which way is up, and that wasn’t the case here. I loved Michelle Butterly as one of the grave diggers, who actually managed to make the Yorick grave digging scene funny. And right at the end Ben Stott as Osric gave a new irritable energy to lines which can often drag. My only slight negative is that this particular Claudius, John Shrapnel, didn’t quite do it for me this time around. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t like his performance, but he just seemed to be in a slightly different, more mannered production than the rest of the cast.
We’d watched the matinee and my viewing companion and I popped back later that evening to watch the end of the play again through the glass walls of the auditorium (to the mild, polite surprise of the ushers.) It was quite extraordinary to see this 1601 play, watched by its audience in a 1970s auditorium, in the middle of the 1874 commodities trading hall, in the centre of a heaving Saturday night out in Manchester in 2014; I felt a bit like a time traveller in my own personal version of Back to the Future.
As you can probably tell, I thought this production was wonderful and I’m so pleased I made the effort to go and see it. I like Hamlet even more now. Do go and see it if you can.