Review: Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange
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.
Companies 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.
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
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
When: until 25 October, 2014
More info: www.royalexchange.co.uk/event.aspx?id=839
- Image Gallery: The Female Form Through Time, Discovery Museum, Newcastle
- “Our first night is bound to be emotional.” Anthony Prophet, co-owner of The Bowdon Rooms in Altrincham
- Book Review: This Is How We Come Back Stronger – Feminist Writers on Turning Crisis into Change
- Image Gallery: Jade Magenta Williams, A Smart Price way of life, PAPER, Manchester
Advertising and Sponsorship Opportunities
For advertising and sponsorship opportunities contact Northern Soul’s Founder and Editor Helen Hugent at email@example.com.
Sign up for Northern Soul newsletter
The Northern Soul Poll
Recent Tweets for @Northern_Soul_
From the archives: The Single Life: What made you love pop music? Northern Soul writers share their seminal songs northernsoul.me.uk/the-single…
Today is Charlotte Brontë’s birthday. Happy birthday Charlotte! pic.twitter.com/iuCz0lQWM4
Click the link for more information and to view our full gallery of images from the exhibition.
Instagram filters were not the first tool used to distort and manipulate the female form. A new online exhibition by Newcastle’s @Discovery_Mus charts how women’s bodies have been artificially changed from the Victorian period to the 2000s. @TWArchives northernsoul.me.uk/image-gall… pic.twitter.com/0gTwKHaQBx