Mark Lawson: Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – when theatre goes gender-blind

Maxine Peake talks on the Prince of Denmark in a new production at the Manchester Royal Exchange.

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One of my university tutors claimed to have seen a Berlin production of Hamlet in which the title role was played by a horse, led around the stage by an actor whose recordings of the lines were played on loudspeakers. During “To be or not to be”, the equine equivocator was apparently assisted to urinate into a chalice.

The professor may have been making a rhetorical point about the piss-taking self-indulgence of German theatre, but the anecdote establishes that it’s comparatively non-radical to have cast the actress Maxine Peake as the Prince of Denmark in a new production at the Manchester Royal Exchange, especially as she follows in an intermittent theatrical tradition that stretches from Sarah Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt to Frances de la Tour.

Peake – wearing a short blonde crop and chest-obscuring costume and favouring the gruff end of her voice – is always playing a man rather than, like Viola in Twelfth Night, a woman pretending to be male. And this approach brings some interpretive gains.

Shakespeare explicitly shows how part of Hamlet’s problem is a struggle with society’s definitions of masculinity. The courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to allude to court gossip that the prince may be gay and his big scenes with Gertrude and Ophelia contain a strong undercurrent of unease at female sexuality. These hints have led numerous actors to introduce a note of sexual ambiguity in their performances.

Peake’s gender-ambiguous portrayal fascinatingly amplifies that element of the text. Inevitably effeminate, her Hamlet also has a startling physical similarity to the thin, bleach-haired Gertrude of Barbara Marten. Has there ever been a Hamlet who is so visibly his mother’s boy? This adds pain to his failure to be the warrior his father’s ghost demands, and to his outrage, in the closet scene, at maternal betrayal.

Yet, distractingly, the casting alternates between gender-blind and gender-sighted. We are asked to see Peake as a man, but the fusspot father of Ophelia and Laertes is now a tiger mother, Polonia (Gillian Bevan), while Jodie McNee is a Goth Girl Rosencrantz.

So, once the lines start to blur in this way, why might Denmark not be ruled by Queen Claudia and her second husband, Gert? Because this alteration destroys the plot – Hamlet would have to kill his mother, leading to a tense conversation in the closet with his father.

A good rule for concept productions (established by numerous catastrophes in opera) is that, if the conceit has to be lifted intermittently to prevent the show from imploding, then it was a questionable idea in the first place. The all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Theatre in 2012 established at the outset that the Shakespeare play was being staged in a women’s prison, and so all the performers were female.

Less coherently, the overall notion behind Sarah Frankcom’s staging seems to be: how can we do this bit a bit differently? Before the gravedigger scene, an avalanche of jumble-sale clothing suddenly descends on to the stage, amid which the workers (the chief digger is also female, a lovely turn as a cheeky Scouser by Michelle Butterly) clear a rectangular space.

Ophelia’s body is represented by one of her dresses, while the skull of Yorick is improvised, like a children’s telly puppet, from a white jumper. These touches are visually arresting, but, with Hamlet and Yorick played by a woman and a pullover, the viewer’s imagination is doubly tested.

At the performance I saw, the audience included large school parties studying the play for A-level. The lads in the row behind reported at curtain call – and not only because of their delighted realisation that the Hamlet-Ophelia scenes now involved two women kissing – that the production was “f***ing awesome: not at all what we expected”. I can see what they mean. Peake’s power and intelligence are a joy to watch, as are the performances by John Shrapnel as both a Putinish Claudius and a Ghost who tangibly distrusts his son. But a great classical production surprises by extracting new things from the text – as Shrapnel’s impeccable verse-speaking does – rather than by injecting them.

 

Back on Peak form

The 1990 ABC miniseries Twin Peaks, created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, took the standard small-screen form of the whodunnit and retained the main generic obligation – an atmosphere of menace and suspense – while adding a comedic weirdness to the suspects and the FBI agent investigating the murder of a teenager. Several recent hits feel indebted to the show either in tone (Breaking Bad) or as a direct homage: both Broadchurch and Top of the Lake began with killings or disappearances in peculiar rural communities. Two more Twin offspring arrived this past week. Both a home-made series, Glue (E4), and an import, The Leftovers (Sky Atlantic), explore deaths or disappearances in eccentric settings amid an atmosphere of tragicomic oddness. Although it survived only briefly on American TV, Twin Peaks now has some claim to be the most visible influence on current television. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris