What did the UK media make of Maxine Peake’s Manchester Hamlet? Shakespeare Magazine reviews the reviews…

The idea to take on the iconic role of Hamlet, Maxine Peake told Creative Tourist, came after she worked with Royal Exchange Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom on a 2012 production of Miss Julie. “We’ve got this opportunity now where there’s no boundaries,” she suggested, “so we’ve got to challenge ourselves, perhaps even to the point where we overstretch ourselves.”
As Creative Tourist puts it, Peake was “adamant that this part has got absolutely nothing to do with gender-swapping for shock’s sake.” But it must have been clear from the start that gender (or ‘gender-bending’ as the Telegraph helpfully put it) would be the principal lens through which many critics and punters would experience this production.
Hamlet 7 credit Jonathan Keenan
Several reviewers pointed out this was the first time Hamlet has been played by a woman in a high-profile production since Frances de la Tour in 1979. Susannah Clapp (Observer/Guardian) gave as good a summary as can be found of the rich theatrical story Peake’s performance belongs to: ‘There is a long, strong tradition of women performing the role,” she writes. “Sarah Siddons took it on in Manchester in 1777. Victorian actresses, amateur and professional, played the part regularly. Sarah Bernhardt, the first actress to be filmed in the part, declared it should always be performed by a woman.”

Frankcom told Creative Tourist that “Prescribed notions of gender – what is female, what is male – are all in flux at the moment … with our Hamlet, Maxine’s Hamlet, she’s creating a character that’s as much male and as much female.”
Hamlet 9 credit Jonathan Keenan
However, Peake’s Hamlet was for many reviewers very much a prince, rather than the intended royal-human-in-flux. To Polly Gianniba describes it was “a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince.” Michael Billington refers to Peake’s Hamlet as ‘he’. Additionally, Polonius – or Polonia – was played by, and as, a woman (Gillian Bevan). For the Telegraph, this was confusing: “If Hamlet remains, technically, male in this reading – why make these added distinctions?” And one was left wondering whether The Independent reviewer joined the dots of his own thinking when he wrote “We are not used to seeing a woman play Hamlet. The result here is a powerful and yet curiously domestic production.” The suggestion seeming to be that ‘woman’ equals ‘domestic’. Although perhaps this ‘domestic’ sense came from the decision to largely excise the Fortinbras plot, the thread that brings the wider political world into the play’s family drama.
Hamlet 10 credit Jonathan Keenan
Fortinbras’s removal was Billington’s “main reservation” about the production, whilst Gianniba enjoyed the production enough that “anything left out feels inconsequential.” When a production minimises Fortinbras, as has often been done before, it usually indicates a focus on personal, rather than geo- politics.

Hamlet, more than many plays, is an intensely ‘personal’ experience. The character invites the audience’s identification through soliloquy and the expression of existential crisis. Having catalogued the staging (in-the-round), costumes (Chairman Mao suit, Bowie haircut for Hamlet, according to the Manchester Evening News and others) and expressed an opinion about the verse speaking – any reviewer in need of a point-of-view must finally fall back upon his or her own inner Hamlet and see how the new suit fits.
Hamlet 6 credit Jonathan Keenan
On these traditional terms, Peake pleased most reviewers. But it’s interesting to wonder who might be “shocked”, as Peake put it, by seeing a woman playing Hamlet in 2014. To an extent, coverage of this production is several degrees removed from the intense, often violent commentary on gender in this year of Beyoncé as ‘FEMINIST’, GamerGate, and the mixture of celebration and death threats that greets any new female re-imagining of Marvel superfolk. Nonetheless, perhaps that is this Hamlet’s wider, personal-political context. Susannah Clapp suggests that, with this and previous productions, “Frankcom is in effect creating England’s first mainstream feminist theatre.” And if a woman playing Hamlet still has the power to shock, or even confuse, an audience in 2014, then the political, like old Hamlet’s wronged ghost in the play, may have been this production’s sustaining energy.

Photography by Jonathan Keenan

Go here for more on Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.