Months ago, when the news that Maxine Peake was going to play Hamlet had just gone public, I asked her, in so many words, ‘”why?”. Her answer back then speaks volumes about the qualities of daring, lack of compromise and openness that have all helped make her one of our most popular and most respected actresses.

“After the director Sarah Frankcom and I had done Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange, which a lot of people didn’t think I could do at the time, I just said ‘we’ve got this opportunity now where there’s no boundaries, so we’ve got to challenge ourselves, perhaps even to the point where we overstretch ourselves’.

“I honestly believe that’s what you have to do when you have that sort of opportunity. So I was sort of half-joking when I threw the idea of Hamlet at her, which I’ve done a few times in the last ten years. But then we just thought ‘why not?’. We don’t have to go to people and pitch things and we have this amazing space and audience. If we fail, we fail. But it’s about having a go, about saying we can do it.

“Then after we did Masque Of Anarchy, we really did realize ‘oh, quite a lot of people are on our side and want something maybe a bit different, something that feels like it was made for Manchester…’

“I’d rather have had a go and maybe been shot down in flames than to regret not doing something when I had the chance.”

Let’s fast-forward, then, to a few days before Hamlet opens. Peake and I are sitting in an upstairs room at the Royal Exchange, where they’re just about to start rehearsals for the day and her enthusiasm to get back out there, rather than listen to me chatter on over a Danish pastry (honestly), is palpable. Given that she was never going to be Princess of Denmark’ and, thanks to the ‘Max Factor’, there have been a lot of beady eyes on it all from the outset, how has it been?

“We’ve been finding out a lot, and we still are,” she laughs. “We had, sort of, discussed it but we didn’t really know how it was going to work until we actually started. I don’t think you ever do anyway until you get all the actors in a room. Theatre is a team effort so you can’t set anything until you get all the elements together and even then it’s never set. You hope that it keeps growing as you get through the production.”

Initially, she and Frankcom spent a week together before the other actors joined them for a five-week rehearsal period, a relatively luxurious schedule for a regional theatre production.

Historically, it’s by no means unknown for female actresses to play Hamlet. Indeed, it was almost de rigueur for leading Victorian actresses to tackle the part and throughout much of the 20th century there were significant female-led productions, very often with an explicit socio-political agenda. However, there hasn’t been a major female-led British production for 35 years, almost as long as Peake has been alive, in fact. If she feels any weighty responsibility as a result, she disguises it well.

“It was never ‘I can do this’ arrogance,” she insists. “They’re always quite problematic, I find, the female roles in Shakespeare and, actually, there are not that many big female roles that can stretch you as this role does. So you do sort of think, why should this just be the preserve of men?

“Sometimes, as an actress, there have been male roles where I’ve thought, I could do that, I could get my head into that. Just because I haven’t got the appropriate genitalia doesn’t mean that I can’t understand that. And sometimes you get female roles and you spend a lot of time going, ‘I don’t get this woman’. So this opportunity has just been extraordinary.”

What’s more, it gives her the chance to wield a gun and to have a swashbuckling sword-fighting scene with Laertes.

“It’s proper full-on. It’s a bit like a dream come true because I’m on stage and I’m doing a sword fight and then I’m punching him in the head. Now I get why all men get very over-excited about playing Hamlet,” she laughs.

Her Hamlet “is a female who feels more akin to the male sex, and expects everyone else to respect that. That really brings other things out of the language. Some things I read initially as misogyny are now really potent. It sorts of flips it and you go ‘Oh alright Shakespeare, I forgive you’. It feels right and sometimes you go ‘oh my God, this was definitely written for a woman!’

“We’ve looked at gender as a spectrum rather than one thing or another,” Frankcom points out, “with Hamlet occupying different parts of that spectrum at different parts of the play. Remember, Shakespeare’s source material for Hamlet was a Danish legend about a cross-dressed girl child. So this is a writer who is interested in notions of blurring gender.”

Maxine Peake as HamletNot everyone has been unreservedly enthusiastic about the production and the sort of gender-blind casting that turns Polonius into Polonia and has The Player King as a woman. What’s undeniable, though, is that when Maxine is on-stage – which is a lot – you can barely tear your eyes off her.

While she’s a very fine actress, she’s been extending her palette of late, principally as a writer. That’s something she intends to expand further in her new role as associate director at the Royal Exchange, although the precise project is still under wraps, as well as mentoring some of the young cast of Scuttlers, opening at the Exchange early next year and written by Rona Munro. She’s already penned two radio dramas for BBC Radio 4 – Beryl: A Love Story On Two Wheels and Queens Of The Coal Age, with the former proving hugely successful in its stage incarnation, Beryl, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

“Yes, that was a bit of surprise, and exciting,” she agrees. “That was me finding my voice and my confidence, tapping into that local audience with a local story that really seemed to mean something. Because those people who turned up were not always theatre-goers. It’s about entertaining and educating people, not baffling them.

“That’s been exciting, and now I’m writing something for this theatre. Without sounding all ‘Citizen Peake’, more than ever local people need a voice in these extreme times and I feel the Exchange has a huge role to play in that. So it’s an honour to be part of this building’s future for a little while.”

By Kevin Bourke

Royal Exchange © Matthew J Graham, 2013 (2)


Hamlet is at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until October 25, 2014. For more info, click here.

To read Northern Soul’s review of Hamlet, click here