Royal Exchange, Manchester
Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet is surely the most daunting for any actor. The Royal Exchange’s version runs for a bum-numbing three and a half hours and incorporates so many famous soliloquies and one-liners, that even the most accomplished actor must work overtime to maintain concentration. Thankfully, that’s not a problem here, because this is one of the most compelling and satisfying Shakespearian adaptations I’ve ever seen. It might seem a novelty featuring a female actor in the lead role but it’s by no means a new idea. Sarah Siddons was the first to do it in 1777 (in Manchester, appropriately enough, though its reported that she had to drape herself in a long dark shawl to ‘preserve her modesty.’) and there have been a whole string of female actors who have followed in her footsteps over the years though, interestingly, nobody has attempted it since Frances De La Tour in 1979.
Sarah Frankom’s gutsy modern day retelling of the story features some brilliant touches. I loved the fact that Claudius and The Ghost were played by the same actor (the ever brilliant John Shrapnel) and I loved that Polonius had become Polonia – Gillian Bevan’s assured performance turning the character into an overreaching Mother. Her constant attempts to wheel and deal a marriage for her shy daughter, Ophelia (Katie West) provided the biggest laughs of the evening. And best of all, finally – FINALLY, here was a production that made good use of those two perennial encumbrances, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, characters that many modern productions skip completely. Here they were portrayed as two punky slackers from Hamlet’s youth, always ready with a quip and a packet of crack cocaine, their cheery natures only making their ultimate betrayal all the more affecting.
But of course no production of Hamlet can succeed without a charismatic lead player and I’m happy to report that Maxine Peake is simply astonishing in the role, by turns melancholic, sarcastic, brash and (why not say it?) macho. Make no mistake, this is an ensemble production in every sense of the word, yet pity the poor actor that must compete for the audience’s attention whenever she swaggers onto the stage. Even the climactic sword fight (an element on which many a production has foundered) is fast, furious and nail-biting right up to the final moment. The final applause threatened to take the roof off the building.
Due to its unprecedented popularity, the Exchange has added another week to the run. Get hold of a ticket by any means you can, because this is Shakespeare at its very best. A triumph.