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Review: Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (*****)

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Maxine Peake’s Hamlet can be streamed from Amazon Prime UK for £4.49
The DVD of Hamlet with Maxine Peake available from Amazon.com for $29.92
The DVD of Hamlet with Maxine Peake available from Amazon.co.uk for £15.99
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Our Bottom Line:

This version [of Hamlet] was around three and a half hours. But it really didn’t feel long. I would happily have skipped back to the beginning and watched it all again straight away. It feels thrilling and fast-paced, despite Hamlet’s famous inaction; every second was exciting and brought new surprises and revelations.


Our Review (*****)

It’s beginning to feel rather like this play is taking over my life at the moment. After watching and reviewing the BBC Shakespeare Collection production recently, spending weeks in rehearsal for a local production, and buying DVDs of every other version I can find, last Thursday night I headed to a local cinema to watch a screening of the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre’s 2014 production, starring Maxine Peake. Of course, the most immediately intriguing thing about this production was the casting of a woman as the famous Prince of Denmark.

It was an altogether fairly gender-bending production, with a female Polonius (or “Polonia” as she was called), a “Marcella” instead of Marcellus, a female Rosencrantz, the player King being played by a woman and the player Queen by a young man. It was also a very modern production, not just in terms of costumes, but in the whole feel of the play. When Laertes is given permission to go back to university in France by the king, he pumps his fist and shouts “Yes!!” before remembering that he’s in court in front of the King and Queen. That “court” is actually more of a formal dinner, with all of the primary characters gathered around a table in the centre of the stage drinking wine together. In the opening scene the two guards wear high-vis jackets and flash torches around while eerie, discordant notes play. The whole look of the production is fairly muted, with everyone but the players dressed in dark blues, greys and white, and the set is effectively minimal, allowing the focus to remain on the actors.



And what actors they are. It really wouldn’t make sense to start anywhere other than Maxine Peake herself. Although her Hamlet is still referred to with

male pronouns and called “My lord”, she doesn’t attempt to convince people that she’s a man. Her Hamlet is neither male nor female, but rather a sort

A bloodied Hamlet

A bloodied Hamlet

of glorious, androgynous, vicious force of nature. Yet, there is still a definite hint (or more than a hint) of the rebellious teenage boy there, throwing a strop as his parents don’t give him what he wants. He is bold and confident, and yet there are times when we see a sort or young innocence shining through; particularly at one point in the closet scene with Gertrude, where he collapses into sobs in his mother’s arms, for a moment like a child needing comfort. In the scene where Polonia attempts to speak to him, he is bawdy and full of sexual innuendo, stroking an imaginary penis as he tells her that “conception is a blessing”. After arguably the greatest speech in the English language, “To be or not to be…” (which is effectively moved to just after the interval, when he has killed Polonia and sits covered in her blood and playing with the gun that shot her), he lies on the ground and when Rosencrantz enters, points the gun at her and shouts “BANG!”, to be rewarded with a shocked screech. When he realises his mother is dying, his immediate reaction is not to turn on the king but to stare disbelieving at the idea of losing her. This is a Hamlet in turns ferocious and innocent, contemplative and childishly playful, and altogether astonishing.

Of course, a production cannot rest only on its Hamlet, no matter how good he is. Fortunately Peake has an excellent supporting cast to hold up the rest of the production. Gillian Bevan’s Polonia, far from the typical gibbering old fool, is a consummate politician, a power-suit woman, almost Thatcherite, playing her children for political gain, always seeking advantage. She has obviously written Laertes’ speech to the king in Act 1 Scene 2 and mimes along with him as he speaks, clearing her throat as he forgets the last ingratiating sentence of it. It’s a wonderful new interpretation of the character, and makes one wonder why it isn’t more often played by a woman. Barbara Marten is a tall, elegant, stately Gertrude, and far from being manipulated or ruled by her husband, she seems to have seen it all and is rather exasperated by the goings on of the court. She watches Polonia’s treatment of Ophelia sympathetically, laying a reassuring hand on the girl’s shoulder, and remains firmly out of the way as her husband plots. She’s

Hamlet with Gertrude

Hamlet with Gertrude

wonderfully unbothered by Hamlet’s behaviour at the beginning of the closet scene, looking at him like an affectionate mother with a small child throwing a strop. Her “Thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!” rather than being scared, is beautifully sarcastic. This is a sharp, intelligent Gertrude, who knows her son well and will point out how silly his behaviour is, then hold him and soothe him as he cries. Her cries of “The drink! The drink!” in the final scene were fiercely accusatory; altogether an excellent performance.

Claire Benedict, as the Player King, also gives a stand out performance. She is a tall and powerful figure, especially next to Peake’s slight Hamlet, but has a great sense of gentleness and kindness. The relationship between her and Hamlet is very touching, as Hamlet enthusiastically greets his old friend and the two of them share a private joke as Hamlet warns her not to mock Polonia. Contrastingly, she has a commanding, dominant presence as she gives the speech about Hecuba, which makes one feel appropriately outraged when the atmosphere is broken by Polonia. The scene in the play within the play between her and the Player Queen, played by young, innocent-looking Ben Stott is also very effective- despite the gender reversal, they are both entirely appropriate and convincing as those characters. And of all the Ophelias I’ve seen, Katie West’s has to be my

Hamlet and Ophelia

Hamlet and Ophelia

favourite. She’s stroppy and headstrong at points, innocent and vulnerable at others, and playfully affectionate with her brother and Hamlet (before he rejects her and tells her to go to a nunnery, of course). There is sometimes a bit of a problem with this character, as when she is played as a meek, naïve, submissive little girl it can be rather difficult to imagine why on earth Hamlet would have fallen for her. That’s certainly not the case here. I wasn’t quite so sure about the mad scene- it was all played in pretty much the same tone, without much variety of emotion. I always find that scene works best when there are sudden, unpredictable changes of feeling. However, it was very powerful nevertheless, and using the various items of clothing left on the floor as she strips down to her underwear as the flowers was a clever touch.

Of the main cast, the weakest for me was John Shrapnel’s Claudius. He was very much the villain, and I find this character far more interesting when played with a bit more ambiguity. He rather faded into the background next to all the other fantastic performances. Strangely, he was excellent in his double part as the Ghost. While on the subject of the Ghost, this was done very cleverly and really contributed to the sinister atmosphere at the beginning of the play. Rather than the ghost himself

Hamlet with the ghost

Hamlet with the ghost

appearing in the first two scenes where he doesn’t speak, he was represented by many bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, which glowed harshly when the characters spoke of the ghost appearing, accompanied by ominous, eerie sound effects. When he finally did appear in person the bulbs were lowered so he and Hamlet had to weave their way around them. As they glowed brightly and faded again the actors would be brightly illuminated one moment and fade into darkness the next, creating a visually striking effect through very simple set and lighting design.

Hamlet, even when cut down, is a very long play- this version was around three and a half hours. But it really didn’t feel long. I would happily have skipped back to the beginning and watched it all again straight away. It feels thrilling and fast-paced, despite Hamlet’s famous inaction; every second was exciting and brought new surprises and revelations. The Fortinbras storyline is cut entirely, which allows us to focus solely on the primary storyline and helps to contribute to the feeling of a man rushing headlong towards disaster. No slow burn subplot popping up when what we want to see is action. If you can find an encore screening at a local cinema, I highly encourage you to go along. And if not, the DVD is already available for pre-order on Amazon! Oh, and as a final point; it really is wonderfully inspiring for a young actress to see a woman take on this spectacular role and play it better than an awful lot of men!!

Caitlin Morris,



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Maxine Peake

Alas, poor Yorrick…

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