One of the hottest theatre tickets of the last few years has been Maxine Peake as Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Although not everyone was wholly convinced by the production, there were some truly great moments, and it was nominated for a slew of Manchester Theatre Awards recently, with Gillian Bevan winning as Best Supporting Actress.

Maxine Peake in Hamlet film

Whatever you might have thought of it, though (if you even managed to see it), surely no-one could reasonably contest the fact that the whole project was an inspiring example of a well-respected actress (with the invaluable support of the Exchange’s Sarah Frankcom) bravely using her position to push the envelope, both personally and artistically.

Peake is an actress arguably at the peak of her powers and indisputably hugely popular, in part because she has never been seen to be content to rest on her laurels. And what could be more challenging than taking on one of the most iconic Shakespeare parts and not only bringing it vividly to life for a contemporary audience but also shaking up its sexual politics?

That adventurousness continues in this inspired film version, directed by Margaret Williamson, which manages to be utterly faithful to the stage production while subtly enhancing it.

The simultaneous broadcasting (or simulcast) of theatrical productions in cinemas around the world has been a notable development in the arts in recent years. At first, steps were tentative because nobody, frankly, was sure how successful they might be. Would they simply be seen as a way for London-based productions to get themselves off the moral hook when the vast majority of people in the country didn’t have a hope in hell of getting to see one of their expensive prestige productions? Or would they be greeted with open arms for much the same reasons? Critically, would they kill or enhance the chances of some of those productions, especially from early adopters the National Theatre, actually touring? By general agreement, they’re now seen as a good thing, so much so that popular productions such as Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein are actually dusted off now and again (a bit of a paradox, that, but what the hey…)

Maxine Peake in Hamlet filmHamlet moves the whole debate along. It’s just far enough away in time and sufficiently well-advertised and widely distributed to actually feel like a ‘proper’ film (12A certification for ‘mild violence’ and all), yet it’s still very clearly a version of the stage production. You can see the front row of the audience now and again (and you can certainly hear the apparently inevitable audience coughing) but it’s shot so intimately that it’s almost like being on stage yourself. Filmed with eight cameras (at least one of them above the set), over, I believe, three performances, the film captures the intensity of the stage production with all the polish and care of a feature film.

Close up, Peake’s fierce and textured Hamlet, full of anger, indignation, purpose and more than a little genuine madness, is, if anything, even more mesmerizing than it was on the stage of the Exchange. Yet, happily, Williamson’s expert technique allows the rest of the cast to shine too.

It’s probably a little pointless, especially at this remove, to directly compare the film and the stage production, let alone to disclose which I prefer. Suffice then to say that this film is a bold and striking new version of a bold and striking Manchester-born production that folk outside the city, luckily for them, can now see. It can only enhance Manchester’s reputation as the real theatrical and cultural powerhouse of the nation.

By Kevin Bourke

Photos by Jonathan Keenan

To read Andy Murray’s review of the original theatrical production of Hamlet, click here


You can see a trailer for the film here: