Review: Hamlet, Royal Exchange

“What a piece of work is a man”

The political may be largely subsumed into the personal here but rarely has Hamlet felt so universal. Sarah Frankcom’s stated aim was to create “a Hamlet for now, a Hamlet for Manchester” and in the casting of the towering thespian might of Maxine Peake, it is not hard to feel that she has succeeded. Court scenes are played out around the dinner table, affairs of the state dealt with in business meetings, but all serve to intensify the pained intimacy of a family gone wrong, the suffering of people trapped in a dark world of pain at the heart of which lies this tortured sweet prince.

Dressed in a dark blue Chairman Mao suit (a neat nod to the politics of a determined contrarian) with hair cropped and shaved, Peake’s androgyne is a mesmeric figure from start to finish. The intelligence that sparkles from that voice, the openness that is commanded from that unflinching stare, it is nigh on impossible not to get swept away in the beauty of the performance. It remains at all times deeply humane too – this is a Hamlet who is really teetering on the brink as we see in the shaking hand that cannot pull the trigger, the vocal tremors throughout, the quivering lip at the news of Yorick.

These emotional connections pull the audience right into the heart of the play but it’s not just Peake’s show, not at all, moments of pure theatre come from all angles under Frankcom’s keen directorial gaze. The luminescence of Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s ghost becomes one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve seen all year through the tender warmth of Lee Curran’s lighting; the aching symbolism that is eventually revealed in the striking staging for the gravediggers’ moment is almost unbearably moving, Amanda Stoodley’s astute design choices layering up the pathos in this stark tragedy.

A quality ensemble shines too. Barbara Marten’s poised Gertrude feels genuinely torn between the men in her life, a moment of filial reconciliation at the last gasp thus punching home with huge weight; Thomas Arnold’s hugely compassionate Horatio is near-paralysed by the degeneration of his dear friend and agonised at how helpless he is to stop it; Claire Benedict and Ben Stott imbue something magical into the Player King and Queen respectively even in their short time onstage; Michelle Butterly’s First Gravedigger brings brilliant characterisation via the Mersey.

And the choices that Frankcom has made have their own subtle brilliance. Cross-gendered casting ensures an even split throughout the company, Gillian Bevan’s business-minded Polonia the most striking of these as the bartering of her daughter takes on a different nuance. Textual alterations include the moving of a key passage to an arguably more effective post-interval situation, and having Ashley Zhangazha’s Laertes arrive earlier heightens the tragedy of Katie West’s harrowing self-destruction of her pixieish Ophelia. Nothing feels gratuitous though, these changes – as does the whole production – feel organic and necessary.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3.50
Booking until 25th October

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