We all know the headline: Much-beloved, verge-of-national-treasuredom actor Maxine Peake is playing Hamlet. And all people want to know is whether she’s any good or not. The short answer is: yes and no. Same for the production: there are some really good bits, and also some really annoying bits. Right, now that’s over, let’s try to talk intelligently about why.
Having seen a (white) woman play Othello, I reckoned I’d get through this without getting too hung up on the gender stuff, but Sarah Frankcom’s production complicates gender a lot more than merely having a leading male character being played by a woman. And, making no other readily apparent decisions about the play, this fast becomes the focus (the programme disturbingly notes: “The text of Hamlet was created for the 2009 production starring Jude Law and directed by Michael Grandage”. Which is abysmal – like, seriously, if a director can’t even be bothered to do their own edit of the text…?).
Hamlet isn’t the only “male” role being played by a woman. However, in most (but not all) other cases, the genders of the characters have also been reassigned. Polonia, is Ophelia’s *mother*, and all references to her gender have been altered in the script (tho’ presumably not by Grandage). This works beautifully, and Gillan Bevan effortlessly consigns the whole motorway pile-up of hoary theatrical clichés about Polonius to the scrap metal yard across the course of the evening. Here, Polonia makes perfect sense as an annoying, business-suited, interfering mother and pedantic middle-manager. The character-gender swap also makes it possible for Hamlet to give a whole new meaning to his reply “you are a fishmonger” to Polonia’s question “do you know me, my Lord?”
Which, for the few titters it raises, mostly really underlines that this Hamlet is something of a misogynist. Perhaps they all are. Why weren’t we noticing that before? Rosencrantz is also now female. Indeed her response to “Man delights not me…” is to leap upon Hamlet and give him a hearty snog, before he can explain “nor woman neither”, although this kiss is possibly explained by the fingerfuls of cocaine that Rosencrantz has just been stuffing up her nose. Doubtless because she and Guildernstern (Peter Singh, very good) have been summoned to Elsinore straight from the nearest branch of All Saints.
However, while even fleeting guardsman Marcellus gets a name-change (Marcella), Peake’s Hamlet is still referred to as “my Lord”, and all the rest of it. And Peake (mostly) does an admirable job of not doing “bloke-acting” and just gets on with “playing Hamlet.” With a boyish short back and sides, high cheekbones, and often wide eyes, on one level Peake’s Hamlet looks like an ideal of doomed, Aryan youth. And at its best (the quietest, stillest bits) this feels like the most relatable, sympathetic Hamlet in years.
I have a suspicion that this isn’t unrelated to how Western society has taught us to view women as “softer” and “more emotional” since, oh, forever. At the same time, it also makes you notice how many of Hamlet’s problems stem from his gender. After all, Claudius (John Shrapnell, great when not shouting) wastes no time laying into him for his “unmanly” grief; a line that resonates much harder in this production. Although, happily, not because Peake is being used to underline any sort of “femininity” in the character. Does she do so by default/expectation? Perhaps, although the Hamlet she most reminds me of is Tennant’s, who similarly elided arm-whirling mania and soaked-cheeked misery.
It’s also interesting how, with the lack of “bloke-acting”, Hamlet’s relationship with Gertrude (Barbara Marten – probably one of the best Gertrudes I’ve seen; a totally human mixture of her own anxieties, grief, new-found happiness, strength, weakness, and conflicted positions as mother and monarch) is now largely divested of the horrible, looming, almost rape-threat that with which that bedroom scene is usually charged. Not that Peake’s Hamlet is sexless. Quite the reverse, there are a number of regrettable instances of Early Modern Pointing-At-Knob ActingTM. Another interesting aspect of the production is the transformation of the tragedians into a kind of radical(-ish) young people’s community theatre group. Some Very Young Children Indeed sweetly perform the dumb-show, and some slightly older ones do the prologue. In between the Player Queen(?) pops out of their travelling laundry box wagon and screams into a feedback-y mic over some white noise (very like The Furies). Aw. And the Player King and Queen are gender-swapped without mention, which is nice.
The production starts off looking intriguing: the pre-show is a square table centre-stage, piled high with chairs lamps and detritus. “Ooh,” you think, “this looks interesting”. The first thing that happens when the lights go down is that these get wheeled off. “Fucksticks”, you think. When the two halves of the table reappear a scene later and form a totally normal table replete with tablecloth and filled wine glasses, then the teeth start to grit. But actually, this is mostly a bare stage production with the odd, artfully mismatched chair where Lee Curran’s lights are (again) the real design star.
(Although I was briefly taken with the idea that this might be a Hamlet where everyone is drinking *way* too much red wine. It would be interesting to see that idea taken further, after all, there are endless references to everyone drinking, and Gertrude’s inability not to have a drink kills her in the end. Anyway…)
Indeed, Curran’s lighting deals with the biggest problem in Hamlet in the most imaginative way I’ve seen it done: namely the Ghost. (Ok, this might equally have been designer Amanda Stoodley or Frankcom’s idea) Here, on Elsinore’s blue-lit ramparts, the ghost becomes hundreds of warm-coloured lightbulbs hanging from the heavens. And a soundscape. It looks great (although I did briefly worry that, since everyone is looking up, and the soundscape pretty much stops you bothering to listen to the people running around on stage, if you’d never seen the play before you might be wondering what the shit is going on). Later, when the Ghost appears (opting for the Claudius as Old Hamlet doubling with Shrapnel), the lightbulbs lower right down to various heights around the stage. This is briefly the best Ghost-and-Hamlet scene I’ve seen. Then Shrapnel starts really letting rip with the demonstrative acting, which is a damn shame. And at the end he and Hamlet fall *into an embrace*. An embrace with a ghost. Really? (In passing, it’s a pity they don’t bring the lights back down for the ghosts reappearance in the Hamlet/Gertrude bedroom scene, but. Nit-picking.) Curran has also created a fine “rotating” light effect for the soliloquies where sets of warm, orangey lights, hung low off the first balcony, light up in sequence one after the other, giving the impression of Hamlet being circled by a light, or like a head spinning. Slightly dizzying and briefly shining lights in our own eyes.
And, indeed, this lighting state makes for a neat image of what the production itself feels like. Sometimes the lights are blazing and sometimes they’re off. Maxine Peake at her best is a fine study in acute intelligence and at worst is someone yelling “wah, wah, wah, wah, wah,” under a soundscape tailored to obliterate human speech. (As I type that, I realise I might actually have quite liked it). And the thinking behind the rest of the production follows suit – a kind of strobing between lots of bright ideas and lots of ideas where the lights are off. I wonder if the real problem here is that Frankcom is trying to use the play to manifest a few of her ideas about inclusivity, and radicalism, and refusing all sorts of things, but without really having paid attention to what effect doing those things has. The impulses are all good ones, but the production winds up looking more like a mood board for a better society than any sort of a take on the play.