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Review: Maxine Peake is Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, Manchester

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Katie West and Maxine Peake in rehearsals for Hamlet at the Royal Exchange

This production will be remembered not just for Maxine Peake's superb youthful take on the Dane but for being the first Hamlet I've seen to really feel like a family drama.

There are few servants and no Fortinbras and the threat of war so that courtly life and politics feel peripheral. Sarah Francom's production focuses instead on the family politics: a remarriage and an uncle with a hell of a skeleton in the closet.

Peake, with partially shaved hair and androgynous look made Hamlet nervous, youthful and full of petulant energy that worried and exacerbated his parents. Gertrude (Barbara Marten) looked like a mother torn between her new husband and troubled son.

*Warning of production spoilers*

And Peake's Hamlet was certainly troubled. It's the first time in a while I've seen a Hamlet that felt like the Prince was genuinely on the verge of breakdown, barely keeping it together. To this end the To be or not to be speech was moved to much later in the play, just after the closet scene (and the interval) giving it added despair after what was an angry and fear-driven murder.

Having a Polonia (Gillian Bevan) rather than a Polonius was also an inspired choice. Hamlet has murdered a woman, a mother. Then there is the mother/daughter tension between Polonia and Ophelia (Katie West). It's something very different to that between father/daughter.

Polonia is a career woman and a sometimes overbearing mother. It makes the parental betrayal of daughter in using her as bait - an instrument of an ambitious mother almost - a powerful conflict that corrupts a young and fragile Ophelia. The signs of self harming was, equally, a genius touch. My only grumble being that Ophelia was perhaps dressed a little too young to make hers and Hamlet's romance completely believable. It's a balance that is difficult to achieve.

Horatio (Thomas Arnold) and Hamlet's relationship seemed to be one of genuine warmth and friendship without the ceremony of court. Likewise during the players scene, infant school chairs were brought out for the adults to sit on and the opening mime performed, brilliantly, by children.

There were also nicely innovative production devices - a ceiling of flickering light bulbs when Old Hamlet appears and huge pile of clothes for the burial scene from which a woolly hat is plucked for Osric to wear.

Polonia met a bloody end but Hamlet and Laertes didn't which is always going to disappoint my stage blood lust. Ultimately Hamlet's quick death without comfort from Horatio who seemed shocked into stillness by what was unfolding in front of him made it feel all the more tragic.

I wanted Maxine Peake to play Hamlet without reference to her sex because it doesn't matter - I've seen a man play Gertrude with equal success. This production felt accessible and familiar but not just because I've seen and read Hamlet more times than any other play.

Hamlet runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until October 25 and has a running time of three hours and 20 minutes including an interval.

RS/BW 6DS

Maxine was in the play Leaves of Glass with Mr W (the first play I ever saw him in). I wonder if they talk about Hamlet then and if she already had ambitions to play the part?

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