The fact that The Royal Exchange’s new version of Hamlet, under the masterful direction of Sarah Frankcom, has a woman enacting the famous Prince of Denmark really is the least remarkable part of this play, shows just what an extraordinary production it is.
Throughout the performance history of Hamlet there have been women taking on the title role, and from the very beginning this tradition flourished in Manchester city. In 1777 Sarah Siddons played Hamlet across the regional cities, with Charlotte Cushman, the renowned American actress, following in her footsteps in 1847 at the Manchester Theatre Royal. The last English actress to tread the boards as Hamlet was Frances de la Tour in 1979, and Maxine Peake yesterday proved herself to be a magnificent part of this illustrious tradition.
The opening scene immediately stamps Frankcom’s control upon this production, as the sentinels rush onto a darkened stage and whirl through their first, terrified attempt at dialogue with the Old King’s ghost, instantly taking advantage of The Royal Exchange’s round structure. Within these first moments they talk not with a ghost, but simply the ominous ripples of dozens of exposed bulbs glowing a deep orange and accompanied by unnatural rumblings around the stage.
All is fumbling uncertainty in the darkness of this night, as even the ghost whom we all know to be there is not in any concrete form, but just a presence, an assumption. Later in the play when Hamlet first confronts his father, the bulbs descend from the rafters to the floor and the lights above the audience’s seats rapidly gutter as this presence becomes a ghost in the form of John, the murdered King.
As Hamlet and his father circle one another, weaving in and out of the lights, the progression marked by the change from un-bodied presence to an ironically tangible ghost signals what is to be the unifying theme throughout this Hamlet – the reversal of expectation.
Although I now imagine many will be arguing that we can never hold any expectations of Hamlet because of its notorious complexity, what I refer to is Shakespeare’s astounding ability to make the audience feel that they know where they stand, only to mock and destroy these fleeting certainties. And Frankcom and Peake together perfectly capture this continual round of progression and regression.
Hamlet is at the beginning frail, with reedy voice and shaking hands, but grows stronger with every scene. His relationship with his mother becomes increasingly tender as they are connected by their grief, he for his father and she for her son, whilst Ophelia seems to find lucidity the further she descends into madness.
Seemingly unlike Peake’s Hamlet, Ophelia’s madness is the real thing – she sings and dances in only her underwear, bruised and reeling from Hamlet’s rejection and her mother’s death, made all the more shocking thanks to the brilliant repartee between Peake and Bevan’s often hilarious Polonia (Polonius being purposefully acknowledged as a woman), which served to make their scenes reminiscent of the later comedies.
Under Peake’s authority, Hamlet’s madness is a controlled and purposeful exploration of the assumptions we make of others: he stalks the stage drawing the audience to his side with every wink and hidden gesture of joint enmity against the King.
But what is the point of this persistent undermining of our usually fixed (for Hamlet) expectation? Simply, what Frankcom achieves is to create a fresh performance which genuinely succeeds in delivering devastation in the finale. Ultimately, Hamlet’s questioning and deliberating, his sorrow and rage, come to nothing as he mistakenly kills Polonia, despite their brilliant verbal sparring, and is then manoeuvred once and for all (by himself, by his uncle, by providence?) onto the path of tragedy.
Despite the advancement of his relationship with his mother, she is killed by the poison in the goblet, and despite the doubled nature of his situation in that of Laertes – who similarly grieves for a parent – it is these kindred men who dual to the death. Nothing that Hamlet says or does, none of his profound questions (of which there are so many) can change what must happen at the end of this play, and so the rest is silence.
What Frankcom and Peake achieve is an even more profound and shocking silence than we might expect, demonstrated by the audible gasps in the audience as the plot rolls onward, and the tears which came regardless of our knowledge of how it all ends. Peake is utterly convincing, elastic, cutting, bewildered, and despairing.
Gillian Bevan as Polonia and Claire Benedict deserve special praise as Polonia and the Player King respectively, whilst the Royal Exchange’s Young Company were wonderful to watch in their liveliness.
The only quibble I can possibly think of is that the dialogue, whilst for the most part perfectly natural, on occasion became too quiet to make out every word, especially when the actor was turned to the opposite side.
But this is simply a hazard of working with a theatre completely in the round as the Exchange is, and it is more than worth it for the fantastic effect such a structure has upon performance. All that remains is to say: London eat your heart out, regional theatre is growing ever stronger despite the horrendous cuts to our arts budgets, and this play is leading the charge.
‘Hamlet’ runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 25th October 2014
PHOTO/ The Guardian