Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Hamlet Maxine Peake poster

Making friends in the day-ticket queue is such an excellent way to start a morning.

My friend Meg and I were in Manchester on Saturday, and decided to try for tickets to Maxine Peake playing Hamlet. We got to the Royal Exchange Theatre a little after 8am, where there were about 30 people in the queue for 34 pairs of tickets. The next people to join were a nurse who’d just come off the midnight shift, and a local man who comes to all the shows with his wife and queues so she doesn’t have to (we should all have such loved ones).

The nurse said she hoped there were tickets left for the evening performance, as today was her only chance to see the production but she wanted time to go home and nap first, since she’d been up for 28 hours, working a night shift, looking after her fussy child then working another night shift. She saw our expressions and reassured us, “Oh, that’s just being a nurse on the NHS, though!” (In TOTALLY UNRELATED news, on Monday NHS workers held a strike for a 1% pay raise, which for those of you keeping track at home is still below inflation, so still a pay cut, just marginally less of one.)

By 9:30am the queue had doubled, and a woman with a camera and a German(?) accent came up to me and said, “Excuse me, what are you all waiting for?”

“Oh – Hamlet!” I said. “Theatre tickets. There’s a Shakespeare play on and we’re hoping to get tickets.”

“Oh, a play!” she said.

When the box office opened and we got to the window, happily there were lots of tickets left for both shows, so Meg and I didn’t have to decide between Doing The Right Thing or Politely Fucking Over Nurse Should Have Got There On Time Don’t Give Me This ‘My Shift Ended At 8am, I Got Here As Fast As I Could’ Crap. We got two £10 seats for the matinee (front row!), said goodbye to our new friends and went off for a gorgeous breakfast at the Albert Square Chop House of grilled kippers and fried eggs on toast, and wonderfully strong builder’s tea, and after half an hour I even got some feeling back into my toes.

Hamlet

Even though there were a few small things that made me quietly go “oh no”, overall I walked away feeling like I’d just seen a brilliant production.

Text

According to the programme and website, the text was taken from Michael Grandage’s production with Jude Law in 2009, which strikes me pretty shockingly lazy. I do actually like the edit, it zings up the play and moves To Be Etc. to a pleasingly surprising place. And it turns out the Royal Exchange did make its own changes. It totally cut out Fortinbras (including How All Occasions Etc.), which frees up a lot of room for the Elsinore conflicts to breathe, and probably did more cuts elsewhere.

But the text choices are such a huge part of the direction of any Shakespeare production that it seems bizarre to just pick an edit that makes substantial changes and change it a bit more, instead of developing the text as part of developing the whole show. Maybe a pre-existing edit was used to free up time and energy for other parts of the production, but why pick up a tool made to someone else’s measurements if you’re going to remake it anyway?

Design

The audience entered to pieces of the set piled on a storage trolley – chairs stacked up, props boxes perched on top, promising an interesting start of deconstruction. But then ensemble members strode in, wheeled the trolley away, and wheeled on a set table laid with a nice white cloth, cutlery and wine glasses. What was the point of that? Otherwise the set design was strong: the Royal Exchange is in the round with no flats and just one curtain, so everything had to be taken on and off, or be there the whole time. For the gravediggers, a pile of jumble-sale clothes was dumped onto the stage, which they pushed away to form a ‘grave’ and in which Hamlet found a rolled-up woollen hat that had been Yorick’s. In a production that focused on people’s choices around self-presentation, I thought this was a really witty choice that was also a nice way to dodge the boringly iconic image of Hamlet + Skull.

Special mention of the design for the Ghost, which was smashingly good. A strung cluster of lightbulbs accompanied by buzzing humming noises, the lights dimmed and brightened to show the spirit’s movements, like an ominous Tinkerbell. When Hamlet dashed off to meet the Ghost the bulbs dropped to waist level, and the two actors wandered among them. It was as if Hamlet were somehow walking inside the Ghost, or enveloped by him, physically distinct but metaphysically subsumed. The lights spat him back out and he was shocked and transformed by the change, vulnerable and open.

Prince Hamlet

Maxine Peake was incredibly compelling to watch, which is good because she’s the main part, of course, but also because her Hamlet was often an overwrought dick (on purpose, that’s a compliment). I was reminded of Rory Kinnear’s observation that if you took out the soliloquys, Hamlet would seem like a giant asshole and Iago like a pretty nice chap: if you knew Hamlet in real life, he’d be a real pain to be around. Peake’s Hamlet came across as young, maybe around 17. His feigned madness was a pressure relief valve, that let him scream at people and let out his rage and anxiety without then having to deal with his mum going “Oh Hamlet, I’m not angry, just disappointed”.

The Royal Exchange’s Resource Extra pack for teachers says: “Maxine is playing Hamlet as a woman that “presents” as a man. This means that Hamlet will be referred to as a ‘he’ throughout the play, but that Maxine will be free to emphasise both the male and female aspects of the character at different points in the story. In a world that is gradually opening up to alternative perceptions and expectations of gender, this fresh approach aims to get audiences thinking differently about the play and transgender issues.”

So Hamlet may have been young but he was still confident and thoughtful enough for deliberate presentation. He’s incredibly intelligent and energetic, but with nowhere to aim it, since his path to kingship has been obscured and his uncle wouldn’t let him go back to uni. He’s confused about his feelings for Ophelia – possibly their relationship began before Hamlet started transitioning, and he’s working through what it means to start in a same-sex relationship with someone and transition to a heterosexual one? Not necessarily in a consciously thoughtful way, just as another thing on the list of Things That Are Shit About My Shit Life, by P. Hamlet, age 17 and eight months. Hamlet’s conflicted rage at her, especially his repeated focus on her genitals, comes from uncertainty about what his decision about his identity means for his sexuality, and he resents Ophelia simply for being around and reminding him about it.

(Also this is the first time I’ve really clocked how massively misogynist Hamlet is, obsessed with, frightened by and trying to control women’s sexual parts and activity. It’s all textual, and I don’t know whether I haven’t picked up on how unflagging it is because most productions cut it, or because Peake played it up, or because male politicians and commentators in real life say that kind of thing enough that it doesn’t register as much coming out of a man’s mouth, or what.)

…And the rest

Gertrude (Barbara Marten): A slightly fed-up mum who of course wants her son to be the best prince he can be, and all that, but also has a country to run and a hot new husband thankyouverymuch. She has patience for Hamlet but not endless patience, and was very unimpressed with his snotty smart-mouth act at the opening state dinner. As tension heated up in Elsinore, Claudius turned internal and started snapping at people, including her, and you could see her pulling away and going ‘excuse me, buddy, who do you think helped put you here exactly?’, though he was too flustered to notice. When she drank poison she was surprised, but when she realised what had happened, not surprised that Claudius had done it.

Claudius (John Shrapnel): Fab voice and one of the less coldly calculating versions I’ve seen. I got the impression he killed Hamlet to become king, of course, but then it turns out Gertrude is lovely and he actually does want his son-in-law to like him. He seemed to me to take Hamlet’s stroppiness a lot more as a personal slight than as a political threat until Hamlet actually killed someone.

Laertes (Ashley Zhangazha): Good arms, good crier. The text didn’t help him in his later scenes with Claudius; along with Fortinbras, the politics have mostly been cut, so Laertes breaks into the throne room as a disgruntled assassin, not a populist champion with a mob at his back. In his next scene he and Claudius are holding giant glasses of red wine, which a nice touch of his acceding and sanding-down, but later I didn’t buy that this physically impulsive, emotionally vulnerable young man would have calmly kept hold of that glass when Gertrude tells him Ophelia has drowned.

Ophelia (Katie West): Likeably stroppy but JESUS WHEN WILL DIRECTORS STOP HAVING HER STRIP OFF IN HER MAD SCENES, I’m honestly about to start selling Ophelia Underpants Countdown Timers or just standing up and taking a shot and yelling “BINGO!” or something. I started crossly expecting it when she came in wearing a two-piece version of her previous dress (ie clearly for easier peeling off), with the waist button undone and her pants visible. My hopes rose briefly when she talked for nearly four minutes without making a move to take them off, but then came Tomorrow is St Valentine’s and whoops there go my clothes.

Meanwhile everyone at court stood around awkwardly watching her wheel around, and while I buy that Gertrude wouldn’t make a move, because one of Gertrude’s most enjoyable qualities is her annoyance at having to deal with this raving young woman who someone decided is now apparently her problem, seriously none of the blokes would take off his suit jacket and try to help her cover up? One of the bodyguards standing around Claudius? Claudius himself? Horatio? It’s even worse when Laertes turns up later and half-heartedly tries to throw a cardigan at her before giving up and sadly hugging her. STOP THAT, EVERYONE. STOP. STOP MAKING YOUNG WOMEN STRIP OFF AS A PREREQUISITE FOR PLAYING A SUPER FAMOUS CLASSICAL PART. It’s boring and it’s rude.

Horatio (Thomas Arnold): Lovelily acted, wonderful voice, to me didn’t seem super close with Hamlet, or at least not significantly more so than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You could see why Hamlet liked having him around though, he was really calm and reassuring, like a gingery six-foot mug of chamomile tea.

R&G (Jodie McNee, Peter Singh): Children of important people going through their coke-sniffing Wild Phase who wore punk clothes like a costume but never questioned Claudius telling them to snoop on their friend. I bet there are a lot of real 18-year-olds like this at Russell Group universities and I probably hate all of them. Very entertaining to watch, though.

Gravediggers (Michelle Butterly, Jodie McNee): Hilarious, a pair of Scouse women in high-vis jackets on the night shift. Meg, who does not go to Shakespeare as obsessively frequently as I do, I think had one of those wonderful “whoa, hey, this is actually funny! Did anyone else know about this?!” theatre moments, and it was one of my favourite scenes in the show. Every joke landed, and how often can you say that about a Shakespearean comedy scene? The cuts elsewhere meant the two gravediggers’ conversation had time to play out, with long beats and facial expressions that would normally be sliced out or sped up. And although I always love seeing what productions do with Fortinbras (baffled diplomat? fascist opportunist? hot?) (only joking, he is always hot), it was really pleasant to have room for those beats without the whole play being four and a half hours long, KENNETH BRANAGH.

Polonia (Gillian Bevan): Genius. Possibly my favourite part, and the most radical change, who pulled the whole weft of the play in a new direction even more so I think than Hamlet.

The usual joke of Polonius is that he’s a rambly oldie who, like Hamlet, tries to control his female relatives’ sexuality; like Claudius, tries to get his son to fly straight and narrow; like King Hamlet, tries to instruct his offspring in how to act well; and like all of them, fails, unintentionally pressure-cooking Ophelia, shutting out Laertes and substituting his own body for the king’s.

Polonia was just as hilarious and tragic as the best kinds of Poloniuses, but in totally different ways. She was a frontbencher who looked like Julia Gillard and acted like a cross between Leslie Knope and George W. Bush. She was goofily enthusiastic about the players – a radical troupe of young people who entered singing David Bowie – wearing a blithe ‘I have no idea what’s happening but am very proud of you!’ school-play smile through the whole Mousetrap show (again, see Bush). Not an out-of-touch patriarch telling Ophelia to keep her legs together, Polonia was a middle-aged woman who has spent her life in the public eye and can tell her daughter from experience, “Oh honey I know he says he loves you and he probably believes it but believe me nude pics will follow you until you die do not sext him“.

Instead of being a foil to Claudius, Polonia mirrored Gertrude as a politically adept mother trying to manage uncooperative children (Can Working Women Have It All??). She subtly added to Claudius’ anxiety around control and legitimacy, since he was now the only adult male in court, but had gotten there illegitimately, while all the women had unquestionably earned their power. Her constant self-monitoring of her image – patting hair, checking the lines of her suits – were hilarious in a way that was totally textual and female. She opened up the play in a dazzling amount of directions, none of which would have been possible with a bloke.

Gender Stuff

Some reviewers have talked about the ‘confusion’ caused by the inconsistent cross-casting. Hamlet is played by a woman but remains a male character, while several other originally male parts – Polonius, Marcellus, Rosencrantz, the gravediggers – are played by women and changed to female characters. I note that none of these reviewers have been confused by the casting themselves, only worried about some potential playgoers who might be. This is idiotic. It isn’t confusing at all in the play – Peake’s Hamlet is who he is, the fully genderswapped characters are played by women and addressed as ‘she’ – and anyway I suspect playgoers who pick “Maxine Peake plays Hamlet” as a first or early Shakespeare outing will be more comfortable than confused seeing many women and genders represented on the stage.

It’s the same approach that has been true of ‘colorblind’ casting for several years, and I also note that no critic talking about the various-gender casting being ‘confusing’ seemed to mark at all that Laertes is played by a black actor and Ophelia a white one. We are already in a place where we accept actors of varying ethnicities in all kinds of parts in the classical canon. It can pass totally without comment, like the Laertes/Ophelia casting in this Hamlet, or open up a new way of reading the play, like the history of introducing postcolonial criticism to The Tempest by casting a white Prospero and a black Caliban.

I really can’t wait for more theatres to start exploring the plays like this without everyone making a huge fucking deal about it every time.

5 thoughts on “Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

  1. Agreed on the whole gender-swapping thing. I just saw an absolutely marvelous production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stratford Festival of Canada where Lysander was played by a woman, AS a woman, in love with a woman; Titania was played in drag; and the whole thing was framed as being a backyard production by actors who were presenting it as a wedding gift to their just-married friends, a same-sex male couple. I thought it utterly delightful, especially the inclusion of "The Book of Love" by the Magnetic Fields. Sigh.

    TL; DR: mess with Shakespeare. He can take it, and sometimes it even improves it.

    1. That sounds like a lovely production! I've never been to the Canadian Stratford but I'm going to assume it's exactly like Slings & Arrows (DEAL WITH THAT!!).

      TL; DR: mess with Shakespeare. He can take it

      THIS is why the only kind of Shakespeare fans that really get me hacked off are the ones who get grumpy when a production isn't 'traditional'. There are BBC box sets for that, dudes.

  2. Back in the bad old days, you couldn't have a naked Ophelia without risking the loss of your NEA grants.. Heck you couldn't cover her in chocolate either… One of ours wore a distressed version of the Player Queens outfit, replete with badly smeared makeup. It was stunning.

    Wish I'd seen this with you to dish dish afterwards!

    Nancy N

    1. Ha!

      The Player Queen costume underlines the thing that really annoys me about 'I'm mad! [top flies off]' – it's lazy more than anything else. I fully believe that both Clothes Off and Clothes On Ophelia can be powerful to watch, but it's been nothing but the former for years. Clothes On means you have to make more design decisions instead of just pushing your actress out onstage and going "go!".

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