“To be, or not to be? that is the question,” is how Hamlet, played by high-profile actress Maxine Peake, resumed the second half of The Royal Exchange Theatre’s stage production of William Shakespeare’s longest and most powerful play – Hamlet. The stage lights shone onto a well-crafted Shakespearean set, under lit, hanging bulbs; throwing the audience’s imagination straight into a deep, silent state of expectancy.
Hamlet is running from 11 September to 25 October, and Peake is playing the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet’s formal title. Around the world, hundreds of eminent actresses have played the role of the vengeful prince, bringing the classic in line with modern attitudes. “I didn’t expect a woman to be Hamlet. It does make you wonder why the director chose to do that and why the actress herself did too. But she was good, so ferocious, brilliant,” Dr Raza, from Manchester said after the show.
For those unfamiliar with the 400 year-old story, Hamlet is a tragedy written by Shakespeare about revenge. Having murdered Hamlet’s brother, Claudius then married the dead man’s wife – Hamlet’s mother. The family is in crisis and Hamlet is a prince both grieving and in psychological turmoil, with Hamlet asked to bring about a brutal justice.
In this stage production, the script remains archaic – Shakespearean – making it at times challenging to follow for the modern audience. However, Peake’s naturalistic way of acting, plus her electric commitment to Hamlet’s madness, is what brings it all together in compelling fashion. Peake’s lack of range in voice projection made the dialogue, in parts, seem lip-synched, without even the sound, the only real criticism of the lead performance.
The costumes and set, both 18th century, facilitate this production’s ability to immerse you in the scene for which this epic soliloquy was set. And epic it is, the play being over 3 hours long. For a contemporary audience, a three hour show would be the highest form of entertainment in a week, maybe a month, but in this modern world of at-your-fingertips telly like Netflix and real-time social media, radio and Youtube, even cinema is struggling to draw and hold the audiences it once did, maybe we are losing our appetite for such lengthy performances?
What is certainly refreshing to see is the multi-racial cast in this production. Laertes is played by black actor, Ashley Zhangazha, Guildenstern is played by Asian actor Peter Singh, whilst the priest is played by another black actor, Tachia Newall. In that respect, theatre has been at the forefront of challenging ideas of roles, on the one hand showing the universality of the human condition and the drama, comedy and tragedy we face in our lives; and on the other as a powerful statement and vehicle for change – a change that is long overdue.
A powerful play that shows what a mind in deep distress must go through, with strong performances from local heroines and a positive move towards more diverse, representative take on the classics.
TNT Arts & Culture Yasin Chinembiri