Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: John Roberts
When it was announced earlier in the year that Maxine Peake was to join the team at The Royal Exchange Theatre as an associate artist and that her first performance would be playing the titular rôle in one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies the word of mouth was nothing short of exciting. Here is one of our finest performers tackling one of the hardest rôles in Shakespeare’s canon and with a sell out coming very quickly after tickets went on sale – the pressure was surely mounting.
Frankcom has delivered a solid production, which if truth were told is a little underwhelming, especially considering how strong concepts for past productions of the Bard’s work have been delivered at the venue in recent years. This is a stripped back production presumably trying to bring the focus on the main attraction (Peake’s Hamlet) but in this raw conceptual vision, we enter a strange no-man’s land where individual elements don’t completely gel together as harmoniously as you would expect.
Amanda Stoodley’s almost bare stage encapsulated by a sky of light bulbs gives a striking visual aesthetic to the piece, but an almost bizarre leftfield approach especially with the gravediggers scene of knitted jumpers and discarded clothes replacing the earth seems a juxtaposition to far.
But this is a Hamlet where the performances are it’s strongest suit. Peake’s Hamlet is nuanced and delivered with a confident assurance, a bubbling underlying energy which surfaces in fresh ways and provides the character with something to really wrestle with and grow from as the play progresses. Gillian Bevan joins in the gender-swapping party as Polonia – a sex change which works extremely well. Bevan’s Harriet Harman-esque delivery brings out the comedy of the rôle beautifully and highlights the razor sharp wit of the character’s dry sense of humour. Michelle Butterly gives a great scouse gravedigger which helps lift and lighten the rather darker second half of act two.
Thomas Arnold as Horatio has a weight of friendly reassurance but it’s Katie West’s Ophelia which strikes a chord, her descent into madness is truly believable and showcases this fine young actress as a future star of the stage. Notable support also comes from Jodie McNee and Peter Singh as the gothic Rosencrantz and Guildernstern.
At a lengthy 3.5 hours long, arguably an earlier start time may have been a bit more audience friendly, but the piece never outstays its welcome and pacing is never an issue for Frankcom’s production. With a strong performance from Peake this Hamlet delivers on many fronts, but sadly is let down on many more, a solid and efficient reading of the play but it’s not going to set the world alight!
Runs until 25th October 2014 | Photo: Jonathan Keenan