It’s a long time since a play at the Royal Exchange came with such expectation as does the current production of Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake.  Having seen her last year in the Masque of Anarchy I was excited to see whether she could reproduce the standard of performance for the full three hours of Hamlet.

In fact Maxine Peake plays a brilliant Hamlet.  Treading a fine line between male and female, between madness and manipulation, her Hamlet spends three hours finely balanced on the edge of a mental knife.  Both whilst delivering her lines and when silent, she lives the journey of Hamlet.  In fact she is so good that you wonder why more women don’t play this classic role; the programme notes describe how this was more common before the twentieth century when ‘theatre became dominated by … the director who was usually male’.  In her Hamlet, Maxine shows the feminine side of the man, and the contradictions that run through him.  It would have been a fine play to have paired with the recent ‘Orlando’.

IMG_5515But in many ways the downfall of this play is that Maxine Peake is so different and unique.  Some of the interchanges no longer work as convincing conversations, and certain scenes lose their power and tension through this. Whilst some, including Claudius (John Shrapnel) , Gertrude (Barbara Marten) and Ophelia (Katie West) rise to this challenge and produce outstanding performances, other roles just don’t quite fit this play.  Laertes (Ashley Zhangazha) doesn’t react convincingly to Hamlet’s machinations, and I wasn’t impressed at all by Polonia (Gillian Bevan) – paradoxically a great opportunity to develop a strong female character.  Clearly she is a great actress but her character just jarred, and didn’t work against either Hamlet or Ophelia.  Most of the other gender changes work brilliantly – the Player King, Rosencrantz and the Grave Diggers are all strong characters.

There is great pace throughout with no time lost in scene changes.  For most of the play. Sarah Frankcom creates a beautifully sparse production that allows the cast to focus on the characters, and reinforces the coldness of the setting.  Sound and light are used to great effect; the almost industrial, jarring music sets the scene and the spirit is created using dimming light bulbs hanging from the celling.  Music continues to play a key role in setting the tension and uncertainty throughout.

IMG_4187The play within a play is interesting.  The Player King (Claire Benedict) is exceptional, and the young players add a new dimension.  It’s a nice touch, creating a vibrant counterpoint to the cold, staid court.  We see Hamlet fully in control, happy, almost childish.

My biggest disappointment in this play was the use of clothing for the grave scene.  Having created a stage full of coldness, tension and confusion, the introduction of clothing seemed very strange.  Completely at odds with Hamlet’s state of mind at the time.  Far better to have gone with earth.  And a skull for Yorick.  Bizarre.

Personally I liked the script edit.  Stripped of the politics, and of Fortinbras, the play focuses on the story and Hamlet’s own journey.  Accessible Shakespeare seems to fit modern audiences better.

Overall, a triumph for Maxine Peake who creates a new Hamlet that undoubtedly others will copy.


Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

3 Responses to “Hamlet”

  1. Andrew Wild says:

    My fifth Hamlet following the likes of Rickman and Cummings … an astonishing production from start to finish. Thanks Dave, I enjoyed it a lot 🙂

  2. Lorraine says:

    Interesting review, Dave. I wish I could have seen the production myself. Could you explain what you mean about the clothing and skull in the grave scene please? I’m struggling to picture it. Thanks!

    • QuietManDave says:

      Hi Lorraine thanks for your comment. It was a strange scene. The grave was created by dropping a large amount of clothing from above, then arranging them to create the sides of the grave. So the clothing was the earth. The skull was then a cream coloured jumper rolled up to resemble a skull which Hamlet plucked from the pile of clothing. It did however allow the mourners to bury only Ophelia’s dress which was a nice touch. I don’t think the concept was right for the production.

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