Gender was completely exploded in Sarah Frankcom’s contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which last week finished its run at the Royal Exchange. This was Hamlet with a distinct difference.
The infamous northern lovely Maxine Peake – most notable for roles in Shameless, The Village and Silks – played the role of Hamlet. This piece of theatre has been highly anticipated by many – with the online schools’ pack referencing both the transgender elements of this production and its 50/50 split of male and female actors.
Peake was incredible in her epic role as an angry, young (wo)man who may be dealing with madness. Peake’s portrayal completely worked. With a tense energy and masculine cockiness paired with influxes of enigmatic vulnerability, it was hard not to be transfixed.
Peake captivated the audience as soon as she uttered the first line, entrancing us with her white-blonde cropped hair and sculptured face. Dressed in a boy-cut dark blue suit, white shirt and dark brown laced boots, this was simple but sleek and androgynous styling.
Her overall performance was highly powerful and astute but after already a month or so of shows down, the rasp and wear in her voice was clearly evident. But we can forgive that given that we came to see her at the end of a gruelling run at the Royal Exchange.
The staging and set was brimming with lots of clever tricks and surpises. For instance, the ghost was signalled by atmospheric use of light bulbs. These bulbs descended from the ceiling on cable rope, then flickered and flashed, while accompanied with an eerie background sound. The overall lighting of the piece was abstract and modern, and worked incredibly well.
The casting was very diverse and pleasingly representative. Gender play continued throughout the play as we also got women playing Player King, Gravediggers, Rosencrantz and Polonius.
A great highlight was Gillian Bevan as Polonia, who added a good measure of humour and quick-witted delivery. Hamlet isn’t usually renowned for its humour – after all, it is a tragedy – but Bevan added a fair few jokes in the right places.
Having John Sharpnel as both Claudius and the ghost was again a smart twist, as both characters reflected that they worked in favour of their own needs by manipulating the young and naïve. Sharpnel was assured and calculating, and teamed up with Barbara Marten as the very glamorous Gertrude. They were the ultimate power couple.
A small downside was Katie West as Ophelia, who failed to ignite the stage and was quite awkward to watch in parts, especially when she finds out the news of her mother’s death. This was a scene that could have showcased different levels within her character but unfortunately it came off as amateur and uncomfortable to watch.
Traditional theatre spiked with modern inflections, this is one of the most compelling versions of Hamlet to date. Slick and polished, with all the actors dressed and styled perfectly, it was a visual pleasure. This version breathed new life and perspective into an old classic.