Hamlet, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 11th September-25th October, 2014
To begin with: an admission of my own ignorance. When, some months ago, I first espied the poster currently glorying the Royal Exchange, Maxine Peake, that brilliant, severe, intelligent actress last seen here by us as Strindberg’s Miss Julie, staring out from beneath a frowning forehead above the word HAMLET, I was struck. Firstly, by a single word: audacious. And then by a sense of my own innate sexism (what a piece of work is a man): why shouldn’t Maxine Peake be Hamlet? Much later, flicking through the programme before the play began, I was struck afresh. There I was thinking that Maxine Peake was the first actress to have dared such a thing as (to paraphrase Withnail and I’s Uncle Monty:) playing the Dane. What a limited view I had. This whole concept, a woman as Hamlet, was as old as Shakespeare himself. Everyone from Sarah Bernhardt to Rising Damp’s Frances De La Tour had had a crack at it. Humbled (there is always so much to learn), and yet excited, I took my seat.
Things to know in advance of watching this particular production: it is, in some senses, ambivalently modern. Aside of the guards, who wear police tabards, the cast dress smartly, conservatively, shirts, suits, dresses. It could be almost any time in relatively recent years. You will hear much of the rearrangements, the reversals, the excisions, how this scene has been moved and that character lost. This Hamlet has no Fortinbras. Gillian Bevan plays Polonia as if s(he) was an office manager, her curtness with her daughter Ophelia providing an additional reason for the eventual madness (and we laugh at her cruelty and are drawn in, accessories to the way in which Ophelia is made an accessory herself). Jodie McNee – who was so good in A Taste of Honey some months ago – plays Rosencrantz as a tattooed, leather jacketed tough (and, we are sorry to say, is one of the play’s current weak spots – someone should advise her to run less). But we get ahead of ourselves. The thing to know is that this is a production that likes to mix things up, that pushes at our expectations, that defies us.
The play’s the thing, though – and a playful play is what it is. From the poster – which shows Maxine Peake with an oh so womanly ‘do – to the shock of her brooding first appearance, hair savagely shorn, an alien watchfulness as she sits at a dining table alongside Claudius and Gertrude and Laertes and Ophelia and others. All our eyes are upon her, her withdrawal from the family round, her refusal to participate, her glowering presence. In the first of many such baits and switches, we see how unhappy Hamlet is with his – with his? (you are asked, aren’t you, to ask such a question?) – mother’s speedy marriage to her late father’s brother. The play is the thing but how else can you describe play? Play is dress-up. Play is mask and masque. Play is a trick. And here, as Hamlet, Peake is at her tricksiest. Even over the course of a single speech, modulating her tone, Peake can be Mark E Smith (barking into a microphone from the top of a dressing up box), Peake can be Julie Walters as Mrs Overall (walking about the stage, bandy-legged, a clown showing off for cheap laughs), Peake can be Tom Courtney as Billy Liar (tartly answering back her – her? – mother and father). She shouts, she rages, she whispers, she arches her admirable eyebrows, she laughs, she stares corpse-eyed and stony faced, she lies on the ground pretending to be dead. This Hamlet’s a firecracker alright.
And there is a palpable sense that, somehow, the blockbuster theatre that you hear tell about, the shows that go on in that there London starring actors and actresses what we have seen offof the telly – somehow (ssssssh) has made its way to Manchester and (ssssssssssh, not so loud) we are all privy to something that is in fact really rather special. The audience is as wired as the actors and actresses. Together, wanting to like the thing, we collectively seize on those elements that are good: the light show that manifests the ghost of Hamlet’s father, John Shrapnel who plays both the Ghost and Claudius, Thomas Arnold who plays Horatio as if Horatio fronted Elbow in his spare time, Barbara Marten as Gertrude (we like Gertrude under Marten’s hand, even though we don’t want to, instinctively we think she shouldn’t earn our sympathy but she does), the aforementioned Gillian Bevan who is as good in her role as (whisper it) Peake is in hers, bringing to this production of Hamlet the kind of off-kilter comedy that Michelle Gomez brought to Green Wing.
But not everything is good. Some would go as far to say that, over the course of its three hour run (three hours twenty if you count the interval that doesn’t announce itself until a good two hours in, knees and backs and shoulders aching at every tier of the Royal Exchange’s towering circumference), this Hamlet is uneven. Ah, you might say. But Hamlet is uneven. The character is uneven, a fitful tempest of action and procrastination, that the play should ape the man, why that’s a particular kind of genius right there (Director Sarah Frankcom does deserve a lot of credit, she has done a great job, this Hamlet is GOOD Hamlet for the most part) – but if there are things wrong we must note them, mustn’t we? The play’s the thing and if the play’s uneven then so the play is uneven. Who do we blame else? If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away… Well then, Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged. His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
And it is madness that most undermines the production. It occurs to me, as a weighty phalanx of old clothes fall from a box in the ceiling immediately prior to the gravedigger’s scene, that over twenty years of attending theatrical events at the Royal Exchange, I have seen a great many plays, a great many of which were very good and a handful of which (the concentration camp Macbeth, last year’s deranged Midsummer Night’s Dream) were very, very bad – and the reason that the bad plays were bad was, in the main, because a very simple rule is flouted. A play, a whole play, is composed of scenes and each scene works like a number and all of the numbers should add up. When the Royal Exchange gets it wrong, each scene is treated almost as an independent thing, an exercise in how far an envelope can be pushed, a merry dance that sits askance the scenes that rest alongside, such that taken together, the whole becomes muddled. Uneven. The clothes from the ceiling are a case in point (Hamlet addresses Horatio about Yorick’s skull, Yorick’s skull being a rolled up sweater – and we the audience note the strange difference – why are we saying a sweater is Yorick’s skull? – and become alienated from the drama). After the clothes are done with, there is nowhere for them to go and so they are pushed into a circle around the final action. Not once, not twice but three times, principals move first one pile of clothes and then another. Why on Earth do these people keep pushing the clothes about? Are they still meant to represent skulls and earth? Is burial soil surrounding? Or are the clothes just clothes? Antic disposition, you might say, to lift a line from elsewhere in the play, or needless distraction. Either way it doesn’t entirely work and Michelle Butterfly is robbed of some of the glory of what would otherwise be a fine Scouse first gravedigger. There are also actors who are little too theatre school (Ashley Zhangazha’s Laertes lets the side down a bit) and actors who leave us cold (Katie West who we last saw in Royal Exchange misfire Blindsided is Ophelia and has already attracted some good notices but she left us questioning whether anyone can really do a good Ophelia, so unsympathetic is the character ultimately, the scenes of her unravelling interminable).
And yet, through all of this, the familiarity of the words and phrases and lines that have passed through the centuries and into eternity, into the very air we breathe, ring out. Good night sweet prince. Brevity is the soul of wit. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. To thine own self be true. The lady doth protest too much. What a piece of work is a man. Doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love. The pure beautiful poetry of the piece sings out. Some things can’t be done badly even when they are. Overall? “Was ’t Hamlet wronged?” Not entirely. It is Peake’s night, as the cast withdraw to allow her a solemn solo bow, the whistles and the applause signal that, for the most part, we seem to feel gladdened to share what it is she has brought to the history of this enduring drama – and we forgive those things that, for whatever reason, didn’t quite land as well as we would’ve liked.