Review: Film, Form & a Female Hamlet – Manchester’s Royal Exchange Hamlet (2014)


Giants of stage and screen frame an aggressively bold and capitalised pre-recorded HAMLET, but at what cost to live performance?

To screen, or not to screen: is that the question we must now ask of live theatre?Manchester Royal Exchange’s latest production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is forging a new form, that of recorded theatre, as it’s screened to cinemas this spring after first being filmed at the end of its Autumn 2014 run. But coupled with another formal infidelity – a female Hamlet in the form of a fearless Maxine Peake – is the effect as fresh as Ophelia’s open grave or as chap-fallen as poor Yorick?

Taking its cue from NT Live, ROH Live, and Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon, the production sits astride the stage-screen dichotomy with pride: presented on admission with a program-of-sorts, it gives Maxine Peake top billing above the Bard. These tropes of stage and screen sandwich an aggressively bold and capitalised ‘HAMLET’; an image that, in itself, is a somewhat accurate abridgement of the viewing experience.

Firstly, Peake’s Hamlet is refreshingly fearless for the infamous man of inaction. From a scene of unashamed sexuality in which the book Hamlet carries, the image of the thinker, is subverted to symbolise the crude doings of a phallus, to one of agonisingly ironic innocence as she is cradled by Gertrude, crying like a child, after fatally shooting Polonius, Peake is unafraid to force her Hamlet to every extreme, and the audience follows her with fervour. The scene with Katie West’s doe-eyed Ophelia is a tour de force of her dynamism, a sweet coquettishness crushed under the sole of Peake’s stamped foot as she spits, ‘you should not have believed me!’. The forcefulness of her approach is not without flaw, as some moments stray from bravely going where no Hamlet has gone before to an erratic charade of bellowing and raspberry blowing, but even this, when performed with such vigour, seems to suggest something new and masquerade-like about Hamlet’s madness. So while Hamlet himself may cry ‘frailty, thy name is woman!’, Peake’s performance is its very antithesis.

The same is not true of Polonius’s gender reversal. Transformed into Gillian Bevan’s appositely pathetic Polonia, the portrayal is slapped with the same problem as Prospero being female in Julie Taymor’s 2006 Tempest: the added maternity is a motherly betrayal and Ophelia appears to be offered up as bait for Hamlet to bite. Perhaps an unwelcome expectation, but practitioners of new theatrical forms must be aware of what other performances, of gender or otherwise, an audience is accustomed to and likely to be accompanied by in the auditorium. And this isn’t a new, politically correct nuisance, even Shakespeare and his contemporaries had to be aware of the expectation for cuckolded husbands to be forcibly chastened in public parades.

The refreshing freedom of playing with form isn’t confined to gender reversal. As a new form, recorded theatre has to offer something new to the performance, and here it is the subtle portrayal of Hamlet’s inaction in two particular scenes. The first, shot from a low angle, has Hamlet looming silent and still in the far ground as Claudius prays in the foreground. The second, in the following scene, frames Hamlet in the foreground, but is shot from behind, revealing the gun to the screen audience while it remains hidden from Gertrude. Although perhaps lost on the in-the-round live audience, Williams’s use of that Hitchcockian suspense-cinema hallmark builds tension until Hamlet finally acts and   shoots Polonius. These moments are refreshing because they demonstrate the success of the new form as a marriage of stage director Sarah Frankcom’s staging and screen director Margaret Williams’s shot framing.

The piece plays with form in every aspect, even moving the ever-famous ‘to be or not be’ soliloquy to be a second-act opener, and is perhaps capitalising on the none too solid – or should that be sullied? – flesh of Hamlet’s textual form as it exists in varying Quarto and Folio versions, but to what effect? At times it is profitable, as in Peake’s female Hamlet and the dual-rolling of the Ghost and Claudius, the latter not only taking advantage of John Shrapnel’s skill, but allowing lighting design a part in the storytelling, characterising the former by the softness of Lee Curran’s suspended light bulbs and the latter with stark white spots and squares. Yet, sometimes it embezzles us, the audience paying the £13.50 admission price to see a piece of recorded theatre, out of the experience; often it was impossible to discern a low rumble from the effect of subtle textural sound-scaping in the hanging notes and haunting swells of Alex Baranowski’s score or from the reverberations of an action film next door in screen nine. Although this is not the fault of either stage nor screen director, it was, apologetically, part of the experience paid for.

The Royal Exchange’s Hamlet was a bold and aggressive capitalising on all that is great about theatre and cinema, but has the essence of live theatre forever lost its top billing to film? Or is this just theatre arming itself against its own sea of ticket-selling troubles? Theatre as we know it, with its roots in the Early Modern playhouses of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, was a distinctly commercial form in the same way we think of today’s cinema, and so perhaps the question is not to screen or not to screen, as the answer is inevitably yes, but to see or not to see: it’s going to be there anyway.

March 23rd 2015, cast includes Maxine Peake, John Shrapnel & Katie West, click picture for link to production site★★★½

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