Maxine Peake

Guest Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet

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Guest reviewer and advocate of live screenings: Richard Hoare reflects on Maxine Peake and company’s performance of Hamlet for Warwick Arts Centre. From its sell-out run at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre this production of Shakespeare’s tragic tale was shown at Warwick Arts Centre following it critical acclaim. In this stripped-back, fresh and fast-paced version, BAFTA nominee Maxine Peake created a Hamlet for now, giving a performance hailed as “delicately ferocious” by The Guardian and “a milestone Hamlet” by the Manchester Evening News.

As part of Shakespeare Week, Warwick Arts Centre recently screened a live broadcast of the Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester’s production of Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake in the title role. Hamlet is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most troubled characters, and Peake displays this to extraordinary effect. Hamlet’s ultimate descent into madness is inevitable with this portrayal, as Peake plays the character with a notable ‘unhinged’ quality from the outset. She is dressed much like a young man would, and her hair and voice give her the appearance of a young man, making the character suitably androgynous in the context of this production. Even her movements are befitting of the character’s state of mind. She creeps around the stage, wary of the other characters and where trust can be placed in light of the deceit which has recently befallen the royal family. At times, she even acts as if intoxicated, the stumbling and uncoordinated motion at odds with the determination of the character who is so fixated on revenge and justice.

John Shrapnel as Claudius is full of self-importance and guile, having successfully usurped his brother and taken the throne with his widowed wife. Shrapnel also appears as Hamlet’s father’s ghost, shifting his demeanour to one of malevolence, willing his child to avenge his death and exhibiting the power that a monarch should display.

The action takes place on a central stage with the audience in the round, mirroring the often claustrophobic nature of the action and themes. It is also representative of the thoughts and feelings rammed into Hamlet’s disturbed mind, desperate to escape. The scenery is obviously minimal as a result of this, but the production does not suffer as a result. In fact, it leads the audience to concentrate more on the intense and powerful performances of the hugely talented cast.

It is a very ‘British’ version of Hamlet, with the characters representative of different characters within society. This is not disrespectful to the original text, providing a twist on the play which is both refreshing and intriguing. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring plays (as proved at the screening I attended, where members of the audience spoke some of the most famous lines in the play simultaneously with the actors, in a bizarre Shakespearean karaoke), and this production adds to this. It is perhaps disappointing that it did not get the attention that the forthcoming interpretation starring Benedict Cumberbatch seems to be drawing, as it is tremendously powerful and gripping. You can now book tickets for the National Theatre Live screening of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet from Warwick Arts Centre; the tickets for the London run itself having sold out instantly, making it one of London’s fastest-selling productions ever.

Maxine Peake has received widespread acclaim for her performance in this production, and the Manchester Evening News called it “a milestone Hamlet”. I’m inclined to agree. Interesting and successful interpretations of Shakespeare in recent years have challenged the traditional conventions of what has come to be expected from the plays. Here, the gender of the actor playing the titular Prince is almost irrelevant. We are now living in a world where the boundaries of tradition in texts such as these are most certainly blurred. Peake transcends gender limitation and shows us the raw emotions of a character in deep mental turmoil. If you missed this “Encore Screening” then you may have missed out altogether. Hope for a second encore and experience this excellent production.

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