There’s a terrific, often overlooked sketch in the first series of The League of Gentlemen. In amongst the homicidal shopkeepers and deranged Job Club officers, we see Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton as Henry and Ally, a pair of scruffy teenagers roaming Royston Vasey endlessly discussing their favourite violent movies. One week, they’re debating the relative merits of David Fincher’s Seven. “I don’t like that Bradley Pitts anyway,” says Ally, narrowing his eyes. “Too much acting.”

It’s a good point, well made. And it’s particularly pertinent to productions of Shakespeare. It’s hard to escape it. Actors love Shakespeare: all that juicy drama and comedy, the iambic pentameter, soliloquies and sword-fights. But they can get carried away and start show-boating. Suddenly you’re all too aware of watching a performer performing, rather than becoming lost in seeing a character spring to life. This new Royal Exchange staging of Hamlet in Manchester manages to avoid such pitfalls, but to be honest it’s a bit of a close shave.

It’s not an entirely modernized interpretation – more like timeless, perhaps – though it does throw in such decidedly non-Elizabethan trappings such as watches, light-bulbs, handguns, credit cards and high-viz tabards. In fact, the production as a whole bears particularly strong echoes of Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen, another tale of a sharp-suited Danish family combusting around a rotten patriarch and a wayward son.

Maxine Peake as HamletCompanies should never be discouraged from trying to find new ways into such a aged and familiar piece, but ultimately whatever is done to the text ought make sense, and add to the overall effect. Some touches here, while inventive, lean towards the quirky, even baffling. The final act’s graveyard is represented by a large mound of clothes, so Yorick’s skull takes the form of a bundled-up jumper. And it’s surely the first production of the play ever to include a quick burst of untutored girl group The Shaggs during the Players’ scene. Meanwhile, David Bowie’s lush, cinematic ballad Lady Grinning Soul, about an intoxicating female figure, crops up repeatedly throughout the play, both heard and performed, almost like a theme for the piece. Quite what the song’s meant to represent, though – Womanhood? Ophelia? Hamlet him/herself? His late father? The rotten state of Denmark? All of the above? – is never quite clear. Rather than an addition to the piece, it could risk being a distraction.

More satisfyingly, there is a seriously strong, rich cast. John Shrapnel makes a mighty impact in the twin roles of Hamlet’s dead father and Claudius, his still-living brother, underplaying to powerful effect in both cases. Ashley Zhangazha conveys poor Laertes’  tribulations very vividly and, as Ophelia, Katie West is delicate with an underlying flintiness, right up to her genuinely tragic unravelling.

Many of the traditionally male roles are played by women. Shakespearean theatre has never been a stranger to such gender switching but here it’s deliberate and widespread. Claudius’s male advisor Polonius becomes the female Polonia, a wonderfully wry turn by Gillian Bevan. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now a girl/boy team; the comic relief gravedigger becomes a Scouse woman, played by Michelle Butterly. The Player King becomes a woman, the Player Queen becomes a man, and the sentry guard Marcellus becomes Marcella.

And, of course, this shift extends as far as the title role, since Hamlet is played by Maxine Peake. Unlike the other instances mentioned, the switch isn’t really highlighted, though – no ‘Goodnight, sweet princess’ here. There’s no earthly reason why a woman can’t play the part, of course. Ultimately, it’s all down to the performance. It goes without saying that the Dane remains the meaty, challenging role all ambitious young actors crave, and it’s much-anticipated star billing for Peake: the poster for the production features her and her alone. Maxine Peake as Hamlet

Peake’s performance demonstrates a powerful sense of a damaged, unpredictable, quicksilver personality. In particular, there are a handful of well-turned comic moments. It’s undoubtedly a brilliantly conceived performance, and often fascinating. And yet, somehow it manages to be slightly bloodless at times and never as electrifying as you’d hope. Peake’s Hamlet is hugely intriguing, then, rather than monumental.

But while this just might fall short of greatness, it does nevertheless represent the admirable Royal Exchange having a very palpable crack at one of theatre’s copper-bottomed classic texts. There’s a great deal to relish, and in spite of – or possibly, thanks to – its eccentricities, there’s never a dull moment. For all the fine work, though, there is perhaps, to quote Ally, just a touch too much acting.

Photos by Jonathan Keenan

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Maxine Peake as Hamlet at the Royal ExchangeWhat: Hamlet

Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

When: until 25 October, 2014

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