Before I start this review, I should probably make one thing clear: I don’t like Hamlet. I studied it at university and found it intensely boring – and I found the eponymous character intensely frustrating. It has to be my least favourite Shakespeare play (closely followed by The Tempest).
When I heard that Maxine Peake was going to be taking on the role of Shakespeare’s moodiest hero, I was curious – and having seen nothing but excellent productions at the Royal Exchange, I decided to go for it. I wasn’t disappointed. Peake makes a highly convincing teenage boy Hamlet, with her short hair, sulky bearing and violent mood swings. Her Hamlet isn’t lethargic or lost in introspection, but struggling to control and define his emotions. Peake is an impulsive, physical presence, moving restlessly around the stage throughout the long soliloquies and varying her tone and delivery to mirror this energy. The ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene is particularly good, as Hamlet kisses Ophelia passionately and then pushes her away, clearly torn by conflicting desires. Seeing Hamlet’s indecision in this light certainly makes it more understandable and more interesting. Peake is a strong, magnetic presence throughout the piece, breathing new life into all of the well-worn, quotable speeches, and thoroughly deserves all the praise that will be heaped on her for this role.
I wasn’t dazzled by everything about this production. Katie West’s Ophelia is young, gamine and naive, which makes her suffering credible and firmly lays the blame for it elsewhere – she is bowled over by Hamlet’s attention and consequently crushed by his change in behaviour. Everything about her portrayal makes sense – and then, in the madness scene, she takes off all her clothes. Why? Isn’t it already clear that she’s vulnerable and traumatised and has lost all sense of social propriety? Do we really need to see yet another actress in her underwear? It’s tiresomely cliché to have Shakespeare’s madwomen undress, and for a production that plays so much on gender roles to do it is very disappointing. Ophelia’s discarded dress is later buried by the funeral procession in place of her body, with a mound of clothes representing her dug grave. This use of material to represent both earth and human remains – Yorick’s skull is a balled-up woolly scarf – is another decision that mystifies me, particularly as until this point, the set is naturalistic and clothes have no obvious significance. At the very beginning, boxes of props and pieces of set take up the centre of the stage, only to be wheeled off immediately – and after Hamlet has declared that ‘the play’s the thing’ to ‘catch the conscience of the king,’ Peake tears up the layer of black lino and tape covering the stage to reveal wooden boards. I know it’s terribly uncultured, but I just didn’t see the point to any of it.
There are good bits, of course – a mass of light bulbs suspended from the ceiling (a la the National Theatre Frankenstein) serve as a figurative representation of the Ghost, pulsing with light. When Hamlet goes to meet the apparition, the light bulbs are lowered and his father walks among them as if through trees in a forest. (Casting the same actor in the role of the Ghost and Claudius is interesting, as it helps to justify Hamlet’s disgust at Gertrude’s second marriage). The players that Hamlet invites to perform for Claudius are cleverly envisaged as a youth theatre group – having some very young members mime Hamlet Sr.’s murder makes it all the more sinister. And one more character changes gender – Ophelia’s father Polonius becomes her mother, Polonia. In the hands of Gillian Bevan, she is a Mrs Bennet-esque figure, overly fond of the sound of her own voice and intent on hatching plans for Hamlet and her daughter. She is played well for laughs and I thoroughly enjoyed watching her…
If Polonia is a woman, should she have so much power and influence over Claudius? Gertrude and Ophelia are notably silent presences in the play – yet Polonia, even as a garrulous fool, is able to speak freely and plot with the king. As a woman, should she not have more sympathy for her own daughter? Sarah Frankcom’s decision to have Hamlet played by a woman but remain a male character is even more interesting in the light of Polonius’ complete transformation into Polonia. Why change one, but not the other? How would the play’s dynamic be affected by a completely female Hamlet? According to a mini essay in the programme, there is a history of women playing Hamlet – understandable, given the lack of challenging, complex theatrical roles for women in comparison to men – but if all they do is portray a man, then what exactly is the point?