Hamlet, Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 24-27 September 2014
The Royal Exchange in Manchester is a theatre in the round whose futuristic metal framework sits incongruously within the cavernous hall of the elegant Victorian building from which it takes its name. Six rows of seating on stage level and two rows on the first and second gallery levels place the audience very close to the performance space.
For Hamlet, the stage was initially set with two adjacent rectangular tables forming a square space piled high with props. At the centre of the square, one on each table, sat two large cardboard boxes marked ‘fragile’ bearing the design of a chair on the side; from each of these emerged the blade of a foil, the pair of blades arranged so that they crossed each other. Around the boxes were arranged stacks of small chairs atop which were tiny felt crowns, as well as neat piles of clothes, books, a recorder and a small speaker with its microphone. The arrangement was lit from above by a single bulb.
As the house lights dimmed for the start of the performance, two stage crew pushed the two adjacent tables out opposite exits clearing the space for the first scene.
Francisco (Tachia Newall) was the first guard to appear (1.1). Barnardo’s “Who’s there?” echoed from outside in the outer hall as he entered to approach Francisco inside the theatre. Both wore modern guard uniforms and brandished torches in the darkness of the Elsinore battlements.
Barnardo (Ben Stott) was soon joined in his relief of Francisco’s watch by a female Marcella (Claire Benedict), who wore a similar guard’s uniform with hi-viz yellow gilet, and by Horatio (Thomas Arnold), who was considerably older than Hamlet and wore a long coat against the cold.
Horatio’s scepticism about the ghostly apparition prompted Barnardo’s retelling of the previous two nights’ events.
Marcella sensed the ghost coming before its appearance. She clasped her hands to her stomach as if gripped by a palpable physical sensation in her guts heralding its arrival.
The ghost did not appear at this stage in the form of an actor. Instead bright light shone down from above accompanied by a throbbing electronic sound causing those present to take fright. The source of the light and sound seemed to weave from side to side above them and their gaze followed it.
This was more of an UFO sighting than a spectral visitation. Although the staging was effective, it was nevertheless frustrating that the figure described as resembling the king was not visible. The sound and light faded on Horatio’s direct address to it.
Now that the previously sceptical Horatio had seen the ghost for himself, the vindicated Marcella questioned him “Is it not like the king?” confidently expecting his concession. Horatio looked at the ground as he grudgingly admitted that the ghost resembled the king “As thou art to thyself”.
References to the King looking as he did when fighting Norway and discussion of Denmark’s war preparations were cut, in line with the production’s general expunging of the Fortinbras and Norway subplot. The mentions here of apparitions in the streets of ancient Rome were also removed.
The ghost soon returned, swooping above the stage as Horatio tried again to engage it, and causing the witnesses to duck and dive around as if avoiding a low-flying aircraft. Marcella drew her handgun, offering to strike at it with her “partisan”. The rapid sweep of the light and sound was a perfect match for the panicked reports the ghost’s ever-changing position. Then it was gone.
The ghost’s non-material form and its presence high in the air fitted extremely well with Marcella’s description of it as “majestical” and “as the air, invulnerable”.
All agreed that Hamlet should be informed.
Two tables were wheeled in and placed end-to-end to form one long dinner table (1.2). Claudius (John Shrapnel) and his guests entered on either side of it and took their places.
While Claudius, Gertrude (Barbara Marten) and most of the others were smartly dressed and businesslike in appearance, Hamlet stood out, and not just because of Maxine Peake’s striking short blonde hair: a style resulting from taking a photo of Tilda Swinton to the hairdresser.
Hamlet wore a dark outfit comprising loose-fitting wide-bottomed trousers topped with a buttoned jacket of the same colour, rather like a designer Chairman Mao boiler suit.
This was not a drag king, male impersonation with fake whiskers and cropped hair. Peake’s hair in particular was unmistakably feminine and her voice maintained its natural softness. She was recognisably a woman but with sufficient male accoutrements for her presentation of a male character to be believable while at the same time not obliterating her own femininity.
Ophelia (Katie West) wore a plain-looking blue and white check dress and had a mop of scruffy hair, making her look slightly dowdy and put-upon. She was the complete opposite of her vigorous business-suited mother and this made her as much of an outsider as Hamlet.
Claudius sat at one end of the table: to his immediate left was his man Osric (Ben Stott), then Ophelia, Laertes (Ashley Zhangazha) and an invented character Margaret (Michelle Butterly). Gertrude sat at the opposite end of the table facing her husband. Down the other side of the table were Horatio, separated by a sizeable gap from Hamlet, followed by Polonia (Gillian Bevan) who was positioned next to Claudius as his literal right-hand woman.
Claudius rose to speak of the old king’s death and his recent marriage to Gertrude. This unavoidably retained its mention of Denmark’s “warlike state”, references to which were otherwise completely expunged from the production.
He moved to Gertrude’s side, produced a necklace from a box and placed it round her neck as another symbolic reminder that she had been “taken to wife”.
Everyone applauded this except Hamlet, who continued to slouch, his hands in his lap.
Claudius walked back down Hamlet’s side of the table, speaking of the “better wisdoms” that had approved his actions. As he made his way, Claudius clasped Horatio on the back. But when he came to Hamlet, he could only look at him, his hand hesitantly raised as if ready to place it on his cousin’s shoulder, before continuing on, having conspicuously omitted Hamlet from his round of backslapping. He gave Polonia a reassuring pat too before taking his seat. This apprehensive change of mind demonstrated his nervousness towards Hamlet.
Declaring “For all our thanks” Claudius raised a glass in toast and everyone but Hamlet joined in raising their glasses.
This, together with Hamlet’s refusal to clap and his omission from Claudius’ glad-handing, provided a total of three indications of the tension between Claudius and Hamlet before any word of discord had been spoken. Hamlet’s sour face and detachment had been given a distinct context.
The latter part of Claudius’ speech about Fortinbras and the ambassadors was cut, so that Claudius continued by asking what suit Laertes had to him.
Laertes remained seated as he began his reply with the very formal “My dread lord”, then at Polonia’s prompting stopped, rose from his seat and restarted his address in a more respectful standing position.
Once he had completely his request for permission to return to France, Polonia, who was scrutinising his every move from the opposite side of the table, coughed and nodded at her son, prompting him to add the obsequious concluding formula “and bow them to your gracious leave and pardon”.
This sickening display must have increased the level of Hamlet’s disgust at the new court order beyond the limits of his tolerance.
Just as Claudius was finishing talking to Laertes, Hamlet got up from his seat, turned and started to walk away slowly. This made Claudius’ first words to him “But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son” an attempt to call him back.
Hamlet’s decision to turn back, as well as his response “A little more than kin and less than kind”, together indicated that he had risen to the provocative bait of Claudius referring to him as “my son”. His buttons had been well and truly pressed. Bothering to deal with Claudius was an indication of just how annoyed Hamlet had become. But despite the provocation, Hamlet remained calm and measured.
He stood and leant on the back of his chair to trade bitter words with both Claudius and Gertrude. He was simultaneously sure of himself, but resigned to the overwhelming forces surrounding him. Despite the apparent futility, he felt compelled to plead his continued mourning for his father.
In “I am too much in the son”, Hamlet placed no great emphasis on “son” so that the possible sun/son pun was not brought out. “Ay, madam, it is common” was curt and to the point. But when he contradicted Gertrude over her use of “seems”, picking up and repeating her own word, Hamlet was slightly more enlivened as if relishing the opportunity to fully engage his disputational powers.
Hamlet avoided eye contact with Claudius when not talking to him, but made a point of looking at his uncle when remarking “they are actions that a man might play”. This was a subtle accusation of insincerity. There were signs later that Hamlet considered this a common problem among Claudius’ courtiers.
Hamlet, now sat down again, looked worried when Claudius said he should not go back to Wittenberg. He immediately fixed his gaze upon Gertrude, scanning her intently to see if she would take Hamlet’s side and contradict her husband. But when Gertrude said she wanted him to stay, Hamlet looked hurt and betrayed. Husband and wife truly were one flesh.
Resigned and disappointed, Hamlet slowly and deliberately voiced his assent to Gertrude’s entreaty.
The dinner finished, all the company began to depart except for Hamlet and Gertrude, who fixed a stony cold glare at her son, shaking her head in disapproval, before finally rising to leave Hamlet by himself. This was a further indication of their enmity. The contrast so far established between bullet-headed Claudius, stone-faced Gertrude and soft-spoken Hamlet was very keen.
Hamlet had turned to sit sideways facing along the length of the table. He bowed his head with his hand across his brow shielding his eyes and emitted a plaintive wail, the initial “O” of “O that this too too solid flesh”, before looking at his hands wishing that they might melt.
Hamlet was almost in tears, looked up at the sky to call upon God, and then slammed his hand angrily on the table to exclaim “Fie” at the world’s unweeded garden.
Hamlet’s expansion on this concept in relation to his mother and uncle saw him address the empty spaces they had just occupied. He turned to face the chair recently vacated by his uncle to spit out the word “satyr”: his description of Claudius in comparison with the “Hyperion” of his dead father.
It was possible to feel pain of Hamlet’s memories of his previous family life. His voice ached as he described the time when the old king “might not beteem the winds of heaven” affect his mother’s face.
This early in the performance, Hamlet’s phrase “Frailty, thy name is Woman” kindled a flicker of awareness of the woman beneath the male character.
His profound disappointment with his mother, particularly her prompt remarriage, caused a faint croak to affect his voice as he characterised her as worse than “a beast that wants discourse of reason”. This pained description was made more acute by the way Gertrude had just rebuffed Hamlet’s desire to return to university.
Hamlet paused when thinking of a figure with which he could not compare before alighting on “than I to… Hercules”.
By now the animation of Hamlet’s passion had made him rise from his chair. But in his dismal resignation that he had to hold his tongue, he went to sit at the other side of the table.
Horatio and Marcella entered behind Hamlet’s back, so he did not recognise Horatio at first by voice, offering him only a curt formulaic greeting. But once he turned round and recognised his friend, he rose and hugged him in warm welcome while Marcella stood back.
Hamlet and Horatio sat round the table so that when Hamlet referred to the “funeral baked meats” he was able to gesture directly at it as if still laden with the food.
Once Horatio had announced that he had seen his dead father, Hamlet looked him directly in the eye, his keen intelligence fully engaged.
Horatio explained the nature of the vision, citing Marcella as the sole initial witness because Barnardo was cut from this scene.
Hamlet asked whether his father had frowned, whether he had been “Pale, or red”, and wanted confirmation that he had fixed his eyes upon Horatio. No mention was made of a beard as John Shrapnel was clean shaven. The references to the dead king’s armour and beaver were removed, excisions which were in turn reflected in Hamlet’s summation “My father’s spirit [in arms]. All is not well.”
Hamlet agreed to accompany them that night. Left alone to ponder it all, he stood by the back of Gertrude’s chair to pronounce that “foul deeds will rise…” before exiting.
Laertes and Ophelia entered and the young man hugged his sister lifting her off the ground (1.3). They sat and talked around the same table about Hamlet’s approaches to her. Laertes warned that the “sanity and health” of nation depended on the prince.
Ophelia rolled her eyes at Laertes’ florid euphemisms like “chaste treasure” and “unmastered importunity”. When hoping that her brother was not being hypocritical like a “libertine” Ophelia picked up a glass half full of wine and turned it sideways so that its contents came close to spilling out. This seemed to speak of her own daring.
Polonia breezed in and flashed a credit card at Laertes saying “There, my blessing with thee”. She offered it but then snapped it back to make plain that her “precepts” had to be taken on board first as a condition of her generosity. This was classic control freakery.
Polonia illustrated how Laertes should make an opponent “beware of thee” by making a fencing gesture brandishing the credit card as the blade. She advised her son to dress “rich, not gaudy” and looked at her own clothes when referring to the excellent French sense of fashion.
To underscore his familiarity with Polonia’s hackneyed maxims, Laertes spoke some key phrases along with her. When he chimed along with “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and “borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry” this hinted at the phrase’s iconic life outside the world of the play.
Polonia finally handed over the credit card as her “blessing”. Before he left, Laertes hugged Polonia in the same way as Ophelia by lifting her off the ground. She protested slightly at the impropriety of such a familiar gesture.
Polonia ordered Ophelia not to spend time with Hamlet continuing in her habitual clipped, no-nonsense manner. The character gender swap meant that her statement that she knew “when the blood burns how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows” became a reference to her own treatment by men as part of a classic mother-daughter talk.
This looked completely natural and far more psychologically realistic than the original. The allusion to Polonia’s previous bad experiences with men also made her more interesting as a character.
Ophelia exited briskly pronouncing her stroppy consent to her mother’s strictures.
The dinner table was cleared away for the platform scene (1.4). Hamlet, in a long coat, emerged with his companions. Their conversation was interrupted by the noise of fireworks marking Claudius’ revels. Hamlet’s “clepe us drunkards” sequence was cut, so that right after he commented on the custom “more honoured in the breach than the observance” the ghost made another appearance.
The ghost again took the form of electronic sound and lighting effects, creating the impression of an unworldly presence high above the ground. While the spectacle was very impressive, some of the emotional impact of Hamlet’s first encounter with his father’s ghost was lost.
Exclaiming “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Hamlet raised his arms to the sky in greeting. But while he seemed to be sure it was his father’s spirit, the audience had no visual cues to its identity. In line with the excision of references to old Hamlet’s armour, phrases such as “complete steel” were cut.
Beyond general awe, Hamlet’s first palpable emotion came with his determination to follow the ghost’s beckoning. Marcella tried to stop him “You shall not go” and Horatio drew him back “Be ruled”. They struggled as Hamlet insisted “My fate cries out” and then Hamlet produced a gun from his coat threatening to “make a ghost of him that lets me” at which Horatio cowered in fright. Hamlet gritted his teeth in determined anger. The stage cleared as Hamlet ran off in pursuit.
To the accompaniment of a sound like that of a spaceship landing, a large number of glowing light bulbs descended on their cables to chest height in the centre of the performance space, forming a kind of forest (1.5).
The ghost, now in the form of John Shrapnel in light-coloured loose fitting trousers and shirt, threaded his way through the bulb forest, followed shortly after by Hamlet, still in awed amazement and keeping his distance. Claudius moved slowly among forest of bulbs and Hamlet moved equally slowly after him. This looked wonderful.
Hamlet asked “Whither wilt thou lead me?” to which the ghost replied still facing away from his son.
But the ghost turned mid-explanation to face Hamlet for first time and a flicker of shock passed over Hamlet’s face when he recognised his father.
When the ghost mentioned that Hamlet should listen and then take revenge, Hamlet uttered a shocked, timid, but inquisitive “What?”
As if sensing his son’s continued doubts as to his identity, the ghost stressed “I am thy father’s spirit…” providing confirmation of Hamlet’s half-formed conclusion.
The “porpentine”, whose erect quills were likened to the hairs of someone listening to his tale of horror, was changed to “porcupine”.
Once the ghost had revealed that he had been murdered, Hamlet response “Murder?” was firmer than his previous timid response.
As he asserted “Haste me to know that I… may sweep to my revenge”, Hamlet changed briefly from childlike wonder into firm determination. But once silent again, he checked himself and returned to a state of stunned awe as he listened.
The ghost recounted the full story of his murder. Hamlet was relieved that the forebodings of his “prophetic soul” about his uncle were true.
The ghost knelt on the ground describing the terrible effects of the poison that had killed him.
Hamlet looked pitifully sympathetic and held his hands tentatively in front of him as if wanting to reach out and comfort the ghost. Hamlet was visibly suffering in compassion with his father’s plight.
Overcome with the terror of his memories, the ghost wailed “Horrible, horrible” at which Hamlet fell to his knees in front of him. They hugged in silence for a while as the ghost sobbed.
The ghost withdrew from the embrace, and sat apart from Hamlet, exhorting him not to allow Denmark to become “a couch for luxury damned incest”. He stood over the still kneeling Hamlet and rested his hand on his son’s head, warning him “Taint not thy mind” and telling him not to hurt his mother.
The ghost exited bidding “Adieu, adieu, adieu, remember me” leaving Hamlet still kneeling, his arms spread out as if pleading with him to stay. But he knew this was in vain.
Once ghost had left, the bulbs flew up, their ascent accompanied by more electronic whirring. Hamlet lay sprawled on his back watching them disappear, his hands reaching upwards towards them. This gesture was the continuation of the way he had reached out towards the human manifestation of the ghost, and consequently another way in which Hamlet bade his father farewell.
Hamlet came to his senses still lying on the ground and spoke of the “host of heaven, O earth…” then sat bolt upright to consider a more contentious idea: “Shall I couple hell?”
He vowed to wipe trivia from his memory and devote himself to his new project. Becoming angry at his relatives, he slammed the ground crying “villain”. His castigation of his mother as “most pernicious woman” seemed a fresh sore in view of her recent refusal to support him. Recalling the ghosts last words “Adieu, adieu, remember me” Hamlet looked at his gun, possibly in realisation that he would eventually have to use it.
Horatio and Marcella rushed in and Hamlet happily told them that the ghost was honest. Addressing them individually in turn as scholar and soldier, not “friends, scholars and soldiers”, Hamlet made them swear on his “arm”, the revolver, not to speak of what they had seen.
As they placed their hands on the gun in Hamlet’s outstretched hand, the ghost made its presence felt again, not as a spectral voice but as more of the same sound and light effects. Hamlet calmed the ghost saying “Rest, rest perturbed spirit” at which it fell silent.
The ghost manifested itself only once, so that Hamlet and his friends did not move around the stage to follow it. This also meant that Horatio’s “wondrous strange” was not in reaction to the ghost’s voice but to Hamlet’s description of his encounter.
Hamlet acquired a sense of his mission when speaking of the “cursed spite” of having to set a world out of joint aright.
Polonia asked Reynaldo (Tachia Newall) to give Laertes “this money” which looked like a cheque “and these notes” which were bank notes (2.1). Reynaldo had to discover “what Danes there are in Paris” before engaging them in conversation and describing some of Laertes’ mild faults.
When he asked why he should do this, Polonia (cutting the amnesia sequence) delighted in her explanation that he would with “his bait of falsehood, take this carp of truth” continuing with the full delightful “with windlasses and with assays of bias” sequence.
Ophelia ran in one entrance and was just about to hurry out another when Polonia called her back.
She described meeting the maddened Hamlet, his “doublet all unbraced, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other” cutting the intervening two lines about his hat and stockings.
Ophelia was annoyed that Polonia could not see that Hamlet’s mood was not due to harsh words from her, but precisely because she had been denied access to him. Polonia was determined to inform the king.
Two chairs were provided for Gertrude and Claudius to speak with Rosencrantz (Jodie McNee), a tattooed young goth woman in black jeans, black leather jacket, and Guildenstern (Peter Singh), a young man in trendy clothes including a cropped jacket (2.2). They were engaged to discover what was ailing Hamlet. Claudius named the pair correctly when he first spoke to them, but got their names the wrong way round in his parting words and was corrected by Gertrude.
Despite the cutting of the Norway subplot, Polonia entered to tell Claudius of the return of the ambassadors from Norway, which here became an insubstantial passing detail, omitting the conversation with Cornelius and Voltemand. The gender swap produced the interested textual edit that had Claudius describe Polonia as “the mother of good news”.
Polonia made an excellent windbag. Amid her ramblings, she looked at her arms to indicate the “limbs and outward flourishes” of wit. Gertrude interrupted and put a pause in her “More matter… with less art” which was very effective at expressing her frustration. Polonia continued, omitting the lines about “cause”, “effect” and “defect”.
She pronounced “I have a daughter” at which she summoned Ophelia to read her own letter. This differed from the standard version of the text in which Ophelia’s parent does the reading.
Ophelia began to read aloud, but when she got to “bosom” Polonia became embarrassed at the indelicacy of the word and hastily cut Ophelia short saying “etc.” encouraging her to skip over that section. Ophelia continued with the concluding verse and sign off from Hamlet.
As she did so, Claudius rose and read the letter over her shoulder, signifying his instinctive curiosity and perhaps paranoia about any communication by Hamlet. He took the letter and passed it to Gertrude asking her if this could be the cause of Hamlet’s madness. She concurred before kindly returning the letter to Ophelia, a sign of her affection for her.
Just after the plot was hatched to “loose” Ophelia to him, Hamlet entered reading a book: the Vintage Classic edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Hamlet’s appearance had changed subtly. His hair was brushed up and there was a slight red smear of red lipstick on the corner of his mouth. The appearance of female cosmetics on a woman playing a man with an “antic disposition” was intriguing.
Polonia spoke “Do you know me my lord?” slowly and deliberately as if to an idiot. Hamlet smelt Polonia up and down before telling her she was a fishmonger. The text was altered so that Hamlet identified honesty as being “one woman out of ten thousand”. The sun was a “god kissing carrion”.
Hamlet’s lunacy increased. He asked “have you a daughter?” slowly and slightly creepily, brandishing the rolled-up book over his groin like a penis, then rubbing it vigorously as he spoke of “conception”. Polonia spoke aside directly to the audience about Hamlet “harping” on her daughter.
The pair sat in the two chairs. Asked what he read, Hamlet replied “Words, words, words” in a soft, purring coquettish voice as he smeared the book over his groin. It was interesting here to see a woman playing a madman adopting an exaggerated feminine voice to accentuate his affected insanity, because the female actor’s identity tended to peep through.
He leapt round to counter “Between who?” for declaring that “the satirical rogue” author had said that “old women” have grey beards. The application of this to Polonia added another layer of cross-gendered absurdity to Hamlet’s speech.
He knelt in front of her and spoke of old women’s “weak hams”, pushing her skirt up with his book. All of this he did “potently believe”, said while making another phallic gesture in front of his groin. He returned to the chair and talked of the backwards motion of a “crab”, scratching his groin as if it were infested with lice.
Polonia gestured to beckon him “out of the air”. Hamlet, still sat in a chair facing away from her, swivelled round to add “Into my grave.” Polonia pondered his strange replies before taking her leave.
Hamlet rose and approached her saying “You cannot take from me…” then fell flat on the ground and crawled towards Polonia on his stomach, reaching out to her as he repeated “except my life” in an exaggerated fashion like a bad actor. She scurried away convinced that he was insane, leaving Hamlet to mutter “tedious old fool”.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern saw Hamlet still lying on the ground. Rosencrantz whispered conspiratorially to Guildenstern, crept up to Hamlet’s side and surprised him with a loud “boo!”
The trio embraced warmly and sat in a loose group, which looked relaxed and completely natural for students catching up with each other. Hamlet placed the soles of his shoes against those of Guildenstern when referencing those items, and spread his knees apart describing Fortune as a “strumpet”, a gesture that again pointed to the woman playing the male Hamlet.
The joking turned serious when Hamlet asked why they had been sent “to prison hither”. Rosencrantz said that Hamlet’s ambition made Denmark a prison as it was “too narrow for your mind”, offering him a sachet of cocaine. Hamlet examined it, but handed it back as he concluded his “nutshell” image by saying that he had “bad dreams”. Rosencrantz sat in the chair opposite Hamlet, her legs hung over the side, proceeded to open the plastic packet and snort its contents.
They engaged in an earnestly student discussion about the relationship between ambition and dreams, as if in a philosophy class.
Hamlet’s initial friendliness deftly changed into cold confrontation as he told them that they had been sent for. Hamlet caught them trying to confer an answer, reminding them “I have an eye of you.” They finally admitted that they had been summoned.
Explaining that he had lost all his mirth, Hamlet mentioned “Man delights not me”, to which Rosencrantz responded with an “ah!” as if in possession of the solution to Hamlet’s troubles, then approached and kissed him. But Hamlet pushed her away confirming “no nor woman neither”.
This was a puzzling moment, because Rosencrantz appeared to make her kiss into a transgressive embrace of the woman actor, and her repulse by “Hamlet” became a reminder, despite her male impersonation and relationship within that role with Ophelia, of Maxine Peake’s own heterosexuality.
Rosencrantz announced the arrival of “the tragedians of the city” stressing the name excitedly as if sure Hamlet would react positively on hearing it. Indeed, he was overjoyed at the news.
Mention of “the late innovation” was cut, but this was ironical because children formed a large part of the travelling company. Hamlet took hold of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s hands explaining that he knew “a hawk from a handsaw”.
Polonia arrived ahead of the players, but Hamlet did not conspire with his friends to mock her. Their disdain was simply marked by the rolling of their eyes.
She began her extensive list of theatre genres, accentuating each item by gesturing alternately from side to side. Hamlet watched and took great delight in exaggeratedly mimicking her gestures until Polonia was finally cut short by the noisy entry of the company.
The children were the first to enter followed by the adults and the company’s large wicker prop basket. The principal players were cross-gendered so that a woman was 1st Player or Player King (Claire Benedict) while a man was the Player Queen (Ben Stott).
Hamlet greeted one of children, making “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers” into a friendly gesture of encouragement. The inclusion of young people from the Royal Exchange Young Company here was a subtle reminder that this was where Maxine Peake had begun her acting career.
Hamlet and 1st Player sat on adjacent chairs as Hamlet attempted a speech about Priam. He forgot his lines, but 1st player came to his assistance by stroking his arm, which prompted him to continue “he whose sable arms”.
Hamlet rose and enjoyed scaring the kids with the bloody description of “total gules”. He rolled his eyes at Polonia’s interruption, complimenting him on his “good discretion”. When 1st Player took up the speech, Hamlet sat on the basket to listen.
As Pyrrhus rained blows on Priam, 1st Player pronounced “out, out” which was picked up and shouted by the onstage audience. The remainder of the speech was accompanied by them banging and stamping on the ground. But the fun was interrupted by Polonia’s “This is too long”. Hamlet stroked his chin and countered “It shall to the barber’s with your beard”. This referred back to his earlier mockery of Polonia when he remarked “old women have grey beards”.
1st Player continued with Hecuba. Hamlet sat in a chair next to Polonia and repeated the phrase “The mobled queen”. But when Polonia commented “That’s good”, Hamlet hypocritically shushed her.
With the speech ended, Hamlet instructed Polonia to see players well bestowed, but did not come back at her when she said she would do so “after their desert”.
Hamlet arranged for the actors to perform The Murder of Gonzago and then bid them “Follow that lady – and look you mock her not”, the last part of which was said with a laugh, implying that to do otherwise was nigh on impossible.
Hamlet was left alone to accuse himself a being “a rogue and peasant slave”. This intimate conversation with the audience began quietly. The gender swap of the 1st Player produced a rewrite so that Hamlet asked “What’s Hecuba to her, or she to Hecuba?”
Comparing the player’s passion with his feeble engagement, he demanded “Am I a coward?” still in a moderate voice. But replying to his own question, Hamlet shouted “Who calls me villain?” angrily turning around to interrogate the entire audience as if they had indeed all answered yes.
The fury of his response to the imagined condemnation by the audience, revealed that Hamlet knew the answer to this question all along. Consequently, his concession “I should take it” was not his first moment of recognition. He said he lacked gall, but did not say he needed it “to make oppression bitter”.
His self-disgust had brought him to the floor, where he had his spark of inspiration to use a play as “murder will speak with [most] miraculous organ”. Envisaging how this would work, Hamlet positioned the chairs, one for Claudius and another some distance away on which he sat as he imagined scrutinising his uncle.
At “The play’s the thing” Hamlet ripped up some of the white tape rectangle from the floor. Two others entered and tore up the remainder, and then together they rolled up the floor vinyl and carried it out. This was meant to symbolise the revelation of the underlying truth, but in performance it looked like a pointless exercise.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tried to explain Hamlet’s mood to Claudius and Gertrude (3.1). Ophelia was then herded into position on a chair reading a book provided by Polonia: the Vintage Children’s Classics edition of Little Women.
The sequence cut “To be, or not to be” so that Hamlet entered and immediately caught sight of “The fair Ophelia…” She rose to offer him a single letter, which contained his “words of so sweet breath” instead of a collection of “remembrances”. Hamlet pushed it back at her denying that he had given her anything.
Ophelia pursued Hamlet protesting the contrary as he went to sit in a chair at the other end of the space from where she had sat initially. She stood over him, still proffering the letter, until Hamlet grabbed her and pulled her down onto his lap and into an embrace to question whether she was “honest” or “fair”. Hamlet pushed her off and rose from the chair to tell her that he had loved her once, then contradicted himself, kissing Ophelia at length before saying “I loved you not”. This compounded the contradiction by being an expression of love.
Hamlet ranted that Ophelia should get to a nunnery, then caught sight of the book. He examined the cover and with a flash of insight detected in it Polonia’s influence. Smelling a device, he asked Ophelia where her mother was, before shouting offstage that she should only play the fool “in’s own house”: puzzlingly, this phrase was not rewritten to “in her”.
Ophelia cried out for someone to help Hamlet, to which he responded by throwing her to the ground to tell her “If thou dost marry…”
He stood over her tearing up the letter at “be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny” with the letter shards forming a kind of snow shower. He continued his angry tirade about women’s ambling and jigging. Declaring that all those who were married would live, he shouted his qualification “all but one” offstage to clarify whom he meant. He walked out on Ophelia muttering “To a nunnery, go”.
Polonia breezily told Ophelia that she need not explain what had happened as they had heard it all, and dismissed Ophelia with a waft of her hand in her brisk and coldly efficient manner. Claudius was determined that Hamlet should go to England, while Polonia suggested that Gertrude should speak to him, an encounter she would observe.
The preparation for the play got underway with the players wheeling in their basket and spreading a rug on the ground (3.2). Small children’s chairs were positioned in a circle reflecting the layout of the surrounding Royal Exchange auditorium.
Hamlet earnestly instructed them how to “speak the speech” by not sawing the air with their hands. The male Player Queen responded “I warrant your honour” with precisely the kind of exaggerated hand-waving Hamlet had just admonished. Hamlet was nonetheless glad to see this player’s jovial spirit as he then warned them against being too tame. The female Player King said that they hoped they had “reformed that indifferently”. The part of Hamlet’s speech referencing the “groundlings” was cut.
Hamlet praised Horatio for not being “passion’s slave”. But when Hamlet mentioned that the evening’s play would contain a scene reminiscent of his father’s murder, Horatio looked worried and disapproving. It seemed that Hamlet had flattered Horatio because he knew that he would disapprove of his plan and was trying to get him onside, something that Hamlet had expressly denied “Nay, do not think I flatter…”. If so, this was in line with Hamlet’s other hypocritical inconsistencies.
Claudius asked Hamlet how he was, eliciting his nonsensical reply about “the chameleon’s dish” which he made pointing at the tiny chairs that he had allocated for Claudius and Gertrude to watch the play.
Hamlet turned to Polonia, who mentioned that she had played Julius Caesar as a student. Intriguingly, the gender swap of this character meant that the world of the play contained women playing male Shakespeare roles!
Hamlet was having none of Polonia’s nicely enunciated insincerity and adopted her style of speaking, smiling at her with his teeth clenched saying how “brute” it was of Brutus “to kill so capital a calf” before forcing her down onto her allocated chair.
Gertrude beckoned Hamlet to sit by her. Instead he approached Ophelia, who stood aside refusing to join the others, possibly because Hamlet was there. He took Ophelia by the hand and escorted her somewhat unwillingly to sit in a chair right next to his.
Hamlet asked if could lie in her lap. Rebuffed, he leant in close, surreptitiously looking over her shoulder towards the audience, asking her if she thought he meant “country matters”. Ophelia had had enough of him. Dismissing Hamlet with “You are merry, my lord”, she went to sit by herself.
Hamlet’s sarcastic remarks about his mother’s speedy wedding were countered by Ophelia from afar: this created psychological realism by showing Ophelia still upset and disturbed by Hamlet’s rough treatment, unlike some productions which portray them at this point laughing and joking together.
After Hamlet once again remarked on his mother’s remarriage, in words seemingly directed back at Ophelia but within earshot of his mother, Gertrude got up to leave but was gently pulled back down into her seat by Claudius. Her indignant reaction foreshadowed the eventual outcome of the evening’s performance.
The young children entered to the sound of the production’s theme song, Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul. They handed the onstage audience candles in glass bowls to provide subtle lighting. They acted out the dumb show with the poisoner dancing and playing air guitar to woo the dumb show Gertrude into marrying him, a conclusion marked by them holding hands.
Hamlet explained the dumb show thus: “It means mischief”.
One of the young players burst out of the wicker basket, accompanied by two others who screamed loudly and played air guitar before standing formally before the king and queen to deliver the prologue. They made way for the gender-swapped Player King and Queen. Taken together with Polonia’s student Julius Caesar, this showed the world of the play to be very progressive in its gender-blind casting.
As the performance got underway, a captivated Hamlet was completely in awe of the woman actor portraying the King. He also enjoyed his pithy interjections.
Hamlet was asked the name of play and searched around before coming up with The Mousetrap. He explained that the “knavish piece of work” was “the image of a murder done in Vienna” and moved from his chair to sit on the hamper from where he directed “Begin, murderer”. He did not joke with Ophelia about “puppets dallying” or the “groaning” required to take his edge off, which kept their relationship in its sullen mood.
From this vantage point he could scrutinise Claudius directly opposite him. As Lucianus (Dean Gregory) began to administer the poison to the Player King’s ear, Hamlet leant sideways to look round the actor so that he could stare at Claudius. Horatio too sat forward with a fixed gaze. They were not disappointed.
Claudius rose from his chair in shock at the scene. Hamlet did not comment on the poisoning, so that when Polonia cried “Lights! Lights!”, it was obvious that Claudius had worked this out for himself. All the lights went on and the auditorium blinds were removed bringing in light from the hall outside. This was very effective in suggesting the scrutinising presence of the outside world. Hamlet took the company’s microphone and sang the song “Let the stricken deer go weep” in a sarcastic tone.
Whereas Hamlet was in a celebratory mood and swapped notes with Horatio on Claudius’ reaction, then called for music, the Player King by contrast stared sourly at him expressing her disgust at his stunt, which had disrupted their performance and ran counter to his previously professed respect for them.
He had exploited them as a means to an end. But Hamlet showed no sign of contrition, turning the couplet about King not like the comedy, ending “Why then belike he likes it not, perdie”, into a pathetic excuse directed somewhat childishly in response to the Player King’s fixed stare.
Rosencrantz informed Hamlet that his mother wished to speak with him. He was quietly sarcastic in recommending that the king’s choler should be notified instead to the doctor. He protested that he still loved Rosencrantz “by these pickers and stealers” making a wild gesture with his hands in triumphant insolence towards his enemies.
Hamlet was now sure that entire structure of the corrupt court orbiting Claudius was about to be brought down.
A child brought Hamlet a recorder. Maxine Peake completely mastered the necessary shift in tone from Hamlet’s initial wary playfulness when getting Guildenstern to try the recorder, to the bitter anger of the completion of his analogy. Hamlet stamped and lunged forward shouting “S’blood” before unleashing his full fierceness, accusing Guildenstern of thinking him “easier to be played on than a pipe”.
Actresses often speak of how Hamlet, unlike many female roles, truly stretches a performer’s range: this sequence was a good example.
On this busy day, Hamlet had another idiot to deal with. He ignored Polonia’s message from Gertrude by launching into what he clearly thought was his more urgent cloud recognition game. Polonia was given F’s “I will say so” enabling Hamlet to cut in again to have the final word, sending her away with a teeth-clenchingly sarcastic “‘By and by’ is easily said”.
Hamlet quietly promised not to harm his mother during his impending meeting with her.
The scene in the king’s private rooms began with Claudius’ deliberations, cutting his conversations with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonia (3.3). A red kneeler was positioned by an attendant, which Claudius rested on to begin his prayer.
Hamlet approached from behind and drew his revolver: “Now might I do it pat”. But he thought the matter over, changed his mind and lowered the weapon, determined to kill his uncle at a less sanctified moment.
In Gertrude’s room, Polonia hid by moving just out of sight into the shadows by one of the stage exits (3.4). Hamlet entered in his shirt sleeves with his gun held behind his back. This was puzzling in view of his previous statement about having no intention of harming her, in which case why did he have the gun so readily to hand? And in such an awkward position? This could have indicated Hamlet’s foreboding of danger from this dangerous woman whom he little trusted.
Hamlet’s insolent word game turned Gertrude’s references to “thy father” and “an idle tongue” back on her. This was consistent with the rest of his playfulness. The usual word order when he assured her that he had not forgotten her was changed to “Not so, by the rood”.
Gertrude began to drag him away, at which point he produced the gun and forced her back into the chair “Come, come and sit you down”. Gertrude did not take his threat seriously and her question “What wilt thou do?” was quietly defiant not fearful. Similarly her “Thou wilt not murder me” was definitive rather than pleading, and “Help, ho!” with her hands slightly raised was a sarcastic imitation of how someone more fearful than her might react, demonstrating that she did not feel in danger.
But Polonia heard her words, took them seriously, and ran in fearing murder.
Hamlet turned and fired instantly killing Polonia, who collapsed with blood splattered on her blouse, but then turned away again making it possible for him to plausibly deny knowing the identity of his victim.
Still facing away from Polonia, Hamlet asked if it was the king, then in what seemed an odd change of subject, accused Gertrude of killing a king and marrying his brother.
Confirming his accusation with “Ay, lady, it was my word”, Hamlet cut himself short as he turned to discover that he had in fact shot Polonia. He rushed forward to call her a “rash, intruding fool”, crouched at her side and angrily castigated the dead woman’s body “Take thy fortune”, making her death to be her fault because being “too busy is some danger”.
Hamlet led Gertrude back to the chair and explained what she had done to provoke his ire by standing behind her and marking with his finger the site of the blister on her forehead that her deed had set.
The firmness and dominance of his actions was also expressed in the way in which, enacting the “counterfeit presentment of two brothers”, he first pointed at his own brow to represent the brow of his father on which “grace was seated”. This showed that Hamlet so identified with his father that he thought himself in some way a copy. He stood to one side pointing at an unseen figure next to him to indicate the “mildewed ear” of his uncle.
Hamlet continued to taunt Gertrude for living in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed” at which he leant across her still seated figure and rubbed his neck against hers before moving away to spit out the contemptuous “nasty sty” over which he imagined her making love. Gertrude rose from the chair pleading with Hamlet to stop the words entering her ears “like daggers”.
But Hamlet continued. His increasingly harsh invective against Gertrude’s “murderer” and “villain” husband was given violent physical expression when he ripped the necklace her new husband had recently gifted her from around her neck as he accused Claudius of stealing “the precious diadem” of the crown. This made Hamlet’s snatching of the necklace his exasperated recreation of the violence with which his uncle had usurped his father.
Hamlet was on the verge of tears, shrieking that Claudius was but “a king of shreds and patches”, as Maxine Peake expressed the character’s passion with a simultaneous glimpse of his frailty.
It was at this high pitch of emotion that the ghost entered from the side. His arrival was sufficient to tip Hamlet over the edge.
On seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet broke off and fell backwards onto the ground, raising his arms in a vaguely defensive gesture and reliving the frightened awe of his first encounter with the figure.
Hamlet’s cowering conversation with the “vacancy” of the room convinced Gertrude that he was mad. She tried to comfort him in his distress, caressed him and played with his “bedded hair”, which was partly standing up just as she described. Hamlet sobbed and hugged her.
Hamlet became even more distraught when trying to get Gertrude to see ghost. He tearfully wailed “On him, on him!” and then raised his hands defensively, exhorting the ghost “Do not look upon me…”
The pathetic sight of Hamlet’s extreme distress contrasted greatly with his recent assuredness towards Gertrude. It was to Maxine Peake’s credit that she made this volte face perfectly credible.
Hamlet rose to follow the ghost as it exited “Look, how it steals away”, but remained behind, enabling Gertrude to comfort him and tell him that the vision was “the very coinage of your brain” and a “bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in”.
She sat him in the chair as if resting would effect a cure. Sensing the implication of her gesture, Hamlet rose from the chair and insisted that his pulse “as yours doth temperately kept time” and that she should not fool herself into thinking “not your trespass but my madness speaks”.
Hamlet moved behind the chair and crouched, reaching out his hands across its low back, imploring her “Confess yourself to heaven”. Gertrude said that he had “cleft” her “heart in twain” at which Hamlet stood to tell her to “throw away the worser part” and resist the temptation of sleeping with Claudius.
He hugged her “goodnight”, the pair now reconciled, and Hamlet looked towards Polonia once more saying that he would “bestow” her.
Gertrude asked what she should do and Hamlet replied that she should not let the King know that he was only “mad in craft”. Gertrude said she would not tell.
Hamlet dragged Polonia away, ending on an upbeat joke which indicated that his normal good mood had been restored after all the trauma. At this point the interval came.
What is often one continuous sequence flowing seamlessly into the next scene was here interrupted by the interval. But Gertrude’s post-interval account of Hamlet’s actions served as a good recap (4.1).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered but were almost immediately sent away to provide the couple with privacy. The text was gender-swapped so that the characterisation of Polonius as the “good old man” became a description of Polonia as the “good wise counsellor”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sent to seek Hamlet. Rosencrantz in particular was shocked to hear that he had killed Polonia.
Hamlet appeared still holding the fatal gun, the front of his white shirt covered with Polonia’s blood that had printed onto it as he moved her body, his hands now also bloodstained.
He threw the gun to the floor and sat upright, legs splayed apart, staring at it as he began the delayed soliloquy “To be, or not to be” (4.2).
Delivering this speech in the aftermath of killing Polonia, and with her blood on his shirt, provided a whole new context to the words. He had just taken arms against “a sea of troubles” but had messed up: not surprising then, that he looked at the gun resting a few feet away from him as he pondered the wisdom of that approach.
He constantly played with the gun as a symbol of both violent action and also of equally powerful self-destruction.
He paused and laughed as he realised “there’s the rub”, that dreams might come in that “sleep of death”. He rose from the ground, continuing his train of thought, pausing only over “the pangs of despised love”, no doubt thinking of Ophelia.
He placed his gun at his head: the “bare bodkin” to bring about his “quietus”. Concluding that “conscience does make cowards of us all” he stretched his arms out to include the audience. Holding the gun aloft, he meditated on the “enterprises of great pith and moment” that were thus turned “awry”.
Transferring this speech to this point in the play was problematic.
“To be” is an expression of Hamlet’s doubtfulness and indecision after he has heard the ghost’s story but before he has placed Claudius in The Mousetrap and found the “grounds more relative than this” that fire his subsequent feverish action. As such, the mood fits into the storyline perfectly.
But here Hamlet was expressing his doubts at a point where he already knew that Claudius was guilty, had set off on a determined course of action, and had already come close to prosecuting his revenge. Hamlet had become triumphant post-Mousetrap, nearly killing Claudius at prayer and then shooting at a figure he thought to be the king.
The sentiment of the soliloquy could, however, have been Hamlet’s second thoughts provoked by the knowledge that taking action could lead to disaster and the death of an innocent bystander like Polonia. But the fit with that particular circumstance was imperfect because it was a reflection on what he should do, not what he had already done.
On Thursday, 27 September two people sitting at stage level began whispering to each other during “To be” much to Maxine Peake’s irritation. Sensing an opportune phrase within the text, she turned to towards them and firmly ordered “NO MORE”. The rest was silence.
Whereas in the standard text this philosophical interlude is followed by the haranguing of Ophelia, in this production Hamlet merely lay on the ground and uttered a very inelegant and modern-sounding sigh of “O, here they come!” as he spied Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This comic footnote to the play’s most famous speech was curiously apt given its slightly denatured impact.
Rosencrantz approached the motionless figure, enabling Hamlet to repay her for the shock she had previously given him. Just as she leant over Hamlet, he sprang up pointing his gun and shouted “bang!” to scare her.
Hamlet continued in this vein as he irreverently answered Rosencrantz’s questions about the location of Polonia’s body. He struck a pose, one foot in front of the other sideways on, pointing his gun heroically, as he styled himself “the son of a king”.
Hamlet declared “The king is a thing”. When Guildenstern questioned “A thing, my lord?” Hamlet pointed the gun at Guildenstern and shouted “Of nothing!” as if about to shoot him.
But instead of firing, Hamlet merely laughed and handed over the gun demanding “Bring me to him”. Once Guildenstern had the gun, Hamlet mockingly took fright, raising his hands in fearful surrender with an “ooh” similar to that Rosencrantz had recently uttered in genuine fright. Hamlet ran off cackling ahead of his captors to find Claudius.
Hamlet arrived ahead of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and was not summoned separately into the king’s presence after their entry (4.3). This was consistent with Hamlet’s keenness to see Claudius at the end of the previous scene.
Hamlet was more manic than ever, entering with a sashay of jiggling dance moves as if in time to dance music only he could hear. The energy and skittishness of his arrival was continued in his wordplay.
Explaining that from a worm’s point of view the “fat king” and “lean beggar” were “two dishes but to one table”, Hamlet got down on one knee and shook jazz hands to announce “That’s the end”.
Continuing his analogy about worms and guts, Hamlet pointed at Claudius’ stomach to represent the “guts of a beggar”. This, together with his hint that the “worm” was Claudius’ penis, showed Hamlet’s continuing disrespect.
Asked where Polonia was, Hamlet showed his lack of concern by playing with Osric’s hair as he began his roundabout reply, before finally divulging that she was in the lobby. Claudius gestured to Osric, who rushed out. Hamlet followed Osric towards the exit urging “She will stay till you come” in a comical Lancashire accent: the only instance in the production of Maxine Peake’s own accent peeping through.
Claudius called Hamlet back to tell him he was being sent to England and confirmed that this was indeed a good thing “if thou knewest our purposes” to which Hamlet replied in a silly high-pitched voice “I see a cherub that sees them.”
Hamlet began his “Farewell dear mother” in soft a child-like voice as if trying to creep Claudius out, but became firmer when explaining that “Man and wife is one flesh”. He kissed Claudius on the cheek to conclude “So – my mother” as he exited.
Claudius’ ominous announcement of Hamlet’s fate was slightly rewritten. He said:
And England if thou holdst my love at aught
Effect the present death of Hamlet.
This brought together two separate phrases from the original text. In the second, “effect” was originally a noun “by letters congruing to that effect…”. The change here from noun to verb seemed a very Shakespearean transformation.
Scene 4.4 with the meeting between Hamlet and the Norwegian captain as well as Hamlet’s subsequent deliberations on the bloody folly of the Polish campaign, was completely cut as it related to the Norway subplot.
Ophelia demonstrated her disturbed state of mind before others commented on it (4.5). The large rectangle on the floor lit up. Ophelia walked into it and immediately stretched her whole body upwards, her hands extended above her, to the accompaniment of a disturbing electronic sound.
Her grasp was reminiscent of a drowning person reaching up for help, which perhaps foreshadowed her eventual fate.
As the sound fell silent, Ophelia crouched on her hands and knees, bent right over, in a corner of the rectangle as if scrutinising something on the ground. The invented character of Margaret watched over her outside the rectangle, which seemed to represent a separate space, Ophelia’s room or possibly the cell in which she was detained. If the space was a cell, then Ophelia’s initial gestures could have been her reaction to her incarceration.
Gertrude talked with Horatio, who spoke the Gentleman’s lines, describing Ophelia as “distract” and advising “Her mood will needs be pitied”. Gertrude was disturbed at Ophelia’s condition and turned to Margaret (not Horatio) to ask a plaintive “What would she have?” to which Margaret replied with a dismissive shake of the head as she turned away, indicating that Ophelia was past cure.
Horatio continued with a description of Ophelia’s disturbed condition brought on by her mother’s death.
Instead of Horatio saying of Ophelia “Let her enter”, Gertrude spoke this line in an altered form “Let [her] me come in”. She stepped over the outline of the illuminated rectangle to be with Ophelia.
Ophelia rose from her crouch to ask Gertrude “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” before launching, not into “How should I your true love know?”, but another instance of Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul. She continued with the text’s “He is dead and gone” as she tore off her cardigan, an action performed with difficulty as her arms seemed to flail around of their own accord as she sang frantically.
Claudius approached and she moved close to him in respectful stillness, offering a polite “God dil’d you” before telling him in all seriousness that “the owl was a baker’s daughter”.
She began to sing the Valentine’s Day song and started stripping off the rest of her clothes, down to her bra and panties, arranging the discarded garments in a pattern on the floor. This foreshadowed the piles of clothes that would later form her grave. Scars were visible on her stomach that were indicative of self-harming.
As she sang “Young men will do’t if they come to it…” she embraced Margaret, rubbed herself lasciviously against her and kissed her.
Ophelia called for her coach and bade everyone “Goodnight, ladies, goodnight. Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” but instead of exiting she returned to her corner and lay on her side to go to sleep. This made perfect sense of her goodnights. Claudius ordered “Give her good watch” but for obvious reasons omitted “Follow her close”, before ruminating on the sorry state of affairs with Gertrude.
Laertes burst in and aimed a handgun at the king. There was no heralding messenger nor did Claudius fuss about his “Switzers”. Gertrude stood just behind her husband, Laertes firmly at a distance from the pair, so that Claudius did not have to ask Gertrude to let go of him. Her only intervention was to assure Laertes that his mother’s death was “not by him”.
Ophelia must have recognised her brother’s voice. She roused herself, once again singing the Bowie song, which attracted Laertes’ attention. He was moved by her plight and offered her some of her discarded clothes in an attempt to get her to put them back on.
But she took the garments only to turn them into flowers. One item was declared to be rosemary and pansies, and given to Laertes. Fennel and columbines were represented by her dress, which was curtly given to Claudius. For rue, she took off one shoe and presented it to Gertrude, then pointed at the shoe still on her other foot and laughed “here’s some for me”. She ruffled Gertrude’s hair telling her “We may call it herb of grace o’Sundays” but lurched from this tender gesture into extreme passion as she sobbed that all the violets had withered when her mother had died.
She exited singing “And will she not come again?” without saying good-bye.
Claudius promised Laertes the kingdom if his mother’s death were proved his fault, and handed over his gun as a sign of good faith.
Horatio appeared with Hamlet’s letter and began to read it aloud, walking in a circle watched at a distance by Hamlet himself, who followed the same circular path as his friend, eventually taking up the narrative in his own words (4.6).
By this we learnt that Hamlet had escaped with the assistance of some pirates, had letters for the king, and also had news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Claudius had now persuaded Laertes that he was not responsible for Polonia’s death, their newly sealed amity indicated by their glasses of wine (4.7). A messenger brought the letter from Hamlet.
Realising that Hamlet was returning, Claudius thought quickly to devise a plan. He seized upon Laertes’ prowess, mentioning “a quality wherein they say you shine…” with the intervening back story cut, continuing with “for art and exercise in your defence, and for your rapier most especial.”
After cleverly taunting Laertes that he might just be “the painting of a sorrow” and getting him to declare he would cut Hamlet’s throat “i’th’ church”, Claudius formulated the plan by which Laertes would cheat at fencing. Laertes briefly mentioned the poison he had acquired which would make the touch of his sword lethal.
Claudius devised the backup plan involving the poisoned drink and acted out the violence of the bout Laertes should engage in to make Hamlet thirsty.
Gertrude interrupted with her account of Ophelia’s drowning. She approached Laertes and clasped her hands around his in sympathy, taking his glass from him. Laertes reacted with anger, trying to stop himself from crying.
The start of act five habitually marks a breathing space in the story and introduces some comic relief enabling the audience to unwind before the play accelerates to its tragic conclusion.
So the fact that this production heralded the start of this new phase by dropping a huge pile of clothes from a container up in flies that hit the floor with a resounding whump and blew dust in the stage level audience’s face, accentuated the difference between it and the preceding action (5.1).
Into this scattered mess of old cardigans and shirts walked two female gravediggers. One lay down on the pile like a dead body and pushed the clothes away from her to create a body-shaped space: in effect digging the grave.
They were both scousers: in what was billed as “a Hamlet for Manchester” the comic stereotype came from just up the M62. They set to work in their hi-viz jackets and woolly hats, but then fell into a discussion of whether the deceased was entitled to a proper Christian burial.
The chirrupy chief gravedigger (Michelle Butterly) delighted in her confident deployment of the Latin “se offendendo”, acting out the essential difference between a man drowning himself as opposed to the water coming to him, making short jaunts in imitation of the flow of water and the suicidal man. This was declared to be “Coroner’s ‘quest law”.
Her more taciturn assistant (Jodie McNee) was not impressed. Indeed her boss had to admit that it was unfair for “great folk” to get preferential treatment over their “even-Christian” as she sat and pointed back and forth between them to indicate that this term referred to the common people.
The boss set her assistant a puzzle about which trade built the most resilient structure. The gender swap of the characters validated the deployment of the feminine pronoun as generic: “What is *she* that builds… The houses *she* makes last…”
The chief gravedigger’s final words “Go get thee in and fetch me a stoup of liquor” were altered so that her assistant was dispatched to a variety of local Manchester hostelries. On 25 September it was “Go get thee to Sandinista’s…”; on 26 September “Sam’s Chop House” and subsequently “Room’s”. This was a nice touch in the light of Hamlet’s advice that clowns should “speak no more than is set down for them”, even though that particular phrase was cut from this production.
The gravedigger put on headphones and began to sing “And now the end is near…” as Hamlet and Horatio arrived at the graveside. She dug up ‘skulls’ from the pile of clothes that were tightly knotted woollen garments.
Hamlet’s lengthy imaginings about the identities of the newly disinterred skulls was shortened. He said that one might be a “politician” and then after musing “Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer?” continued “Here’s fine revolution”, a phrase brought forward from slightly earlier in the text. This connection between a dead advocate and “revolution” carried shades of Jack Cade’s plan to “kill all the lawyers”.
Hamlet approached the chief gravedigger, who was facing away, and addressed her with the text’s “sirrah”, but when she turned and Hamlet saw that she was a woman, he correcting himself to “Madam” (24 September and 27 September). This was a fascinating alteration, showing that even this Hamlet (a woman presenting as male according to the programme) was capable of making assumptions.
There was something slightly regal in Hamlet’s voice when the Gravedigger joked with him about whose grave this was, a touch of the Queen’s “how do you like your work?” accent and manner.
Because Fortinbras was expunged completely from the production, the Gravedigger timed the start of her career to the year that the last king “overcame Norway”.
After the jollity of the Gravedigger’s quip that Hamlet’s madness would not be noticeable in England, she showed the stranger Yorick’s skull. It was difficult to take this seriously as a memento mori, an object of horror and reflection, when it was simply a rolled-up white wool pullover.
Hamlet held the ‘skull’ close to his own head, saying that his lady could paint her face “an inch thick” but “to this favour she must come”, and then used the ‘skull’ as a ventriloquist’s dummy putting on a silly voice to demand “make her laugh at that”. The lengthy digression on Alexander turning into a stopper was cut.
The funeral procession entered to the sound of a solemn tolling bell, the Priest (Tachia Newall) speaking Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd”, followed by the stooped mourners.
Ophelia’s dead body, carried in the Priest’s arms, was represented by her dress. This fitted with the cloth grave concept so that grave and body were of the same material, just as the dust of the dead body was returning to the dust of the ground. But it looked like something a low-budget fringe production might have devised.
Hamlet and Horatio crouched in the shadow of the exit at the other end. Hearing Laertes refer to “my sister”, Hamlet shot up as he realised that this was the funeral of Ophelia. Gertrude squatted by the graveside to deposit items of clothing representing valedictory flowers.
Laertes sank into the pile and gathered clothes around him: the earth piled on “the quick and dead”. Hamlet tried to rush forward, was restrained momentarily by Horatio, but freed himself to stand over Laertes and introduce himself as “Hamlet the Dane”.
Seeing that the king’s enemy had returned, Osric pulled his gun and pointed it at Hamlet. But Claudius gestured at Osric to lower his weapon. It was interesting to see Claudius pass up this opportunity: he could have let Osric shoot Hamlet with no blame attaching to himself.
In their scuffle, Laertes dragged Hamlet down into the grave and easily overpowered him, a predictable outcome given their relative sizes. Osric grabbed Laertes and pulled him away from Hamlet, who was then taken aside by Horatio.
Hamlet reached new heights of ferocity as he spat angrily that he would “fight with him upon this theme until my eyelids will no longer wag”. When Gertrude asked “what theme?” Hamlet became very annoyed that his mother did not understand the cause of his frenzy: “I loved Ophelia!”
As he continued, Gertrude quietly but firmly instructed Laertes to “forbear him”. Hamlet raged at Laertes for a while before he finally left the graveside.
While Maxine Peake’s voice and manner at this point were both fierce, her female shrillness made Hamlet into less of a commanding presence that he might have been. Hamlet had been easily overpowered in his struggle with Laertes. Unable to defeat him physically, Hamlet was left to unpack his heart with words.
Here as elsewhere this Hamlet’s vocal frailty, a woman actor lacking depth and power of voice, expressed an anger that was compensating for weakness rather than posing a credible threat. However, it was worth remembering that a physically bigger actress could have played this differently.
Hamlet and Horatio returned to the clothes pile, now representing a different location (5.2). Before they sat, Horatio pushed the clothes outwards to the sides in preparation for the circle of clothes in which the fencing contest would later take place.
Hamlet explained the story of his escape, the king’s death warrant and how he had rewritten the document. Horatio’s deduction about the fate of Hamlet’s warders was altered slightly to “So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are dead” a far blunter summary than that of the original text’s “go to’t”. Hamlet was unconcerned because “They did make love to this employment.”
When he caught sight of Osric, Hamlet asked Horatio in a whispered aside if he knew “this water-fly”. His disrespect continued when Hamlet whistled to Horatio to pick a hat from the pile of clothes, which Osric was ordered to wear.
Hamlet delighted in obliging Osric to take the hat off and put it on again, as well as mocking his speech, culminating in Hamlet’s slow staccato “What imports the nomination of this gentleman?” When Osric was asked about Laertes’ weapon and replied “Rapier and dagger”, Hamlet stuck two fingers up at him to point out “That’s two of his weapons”. The long discussion of carriages and hangers was cut.
Osric tolerated this disdain, but his frustration began to show. Impatient with Hamlet’s lack of response to the challenge, he gritted his teeth and asked “if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer”. Hamlet responded, mimicking this clenched teeth delivery, saying “How if I answer no?” before finally consenting. Osric threw down the hat contemptuously on his way out.
No messenger brought confirmation of the fencing match so the action continued with Horatio warning Hamlet that he would lose, which the prince denied, but without mentioning that he had been in “continual practice”.
There could not help but be a flicker of awareness of the female actor playing the role when Hamlet dismissed any concerns saying: “it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman”.
Horatio helped Hamlet to prepare for the match by rolling up the sleeves of his shirt ready for some long white fencing gloves.
The pile of clothes was arranged into a circle marking the boundary of the arena, while the rectangle was lit in approximation of the piste. A table bearing the foils was placed at one end, a table bearing the drinks at the other, with a chair in front of each table. Gertrude sat in the chair in front of the drinks table, while a slightly more nervous Claudius stood near her.
Hamlet and Laertes were brought together to be reconciled, but Laertes was resistant to the idea at first. He took Hamlet’s hand, but pulled it away again signifying his continued discontent. This act of defiance became the context for Hamlet’s conciliatory words and request for Laertes’ pardon. Laertes’ grudging acceptance obtained, the pair tried out their foils and readied themselves.
Claudius made great show of the pearl he was to put in his cup. He drank from it first, then dropped the pearl into it: as this was the poisoned cup it meant that the pearl must have been the vector of the poison. This clever sleight of hand seemed intended to disguise Claudius’ actions.
Osric stood between the combatants holding their crossed blades up in the air with his own sword before drawing it away to mark the start of the bout. Tentative tappings of the blade tips gave way to fiercer action, culminating in Hamlet scoring the first hit with a glancing blow to Laertes’ leg.
Claudius offered Hamlet the drink but he refused, the king’s keenness to see his plot succeed prompting him to remain close to the piste holding the cup, ready and eager to hand it over.
The second bout was equally hard fought but ended in an easy hit for Hamlet as he pushed Laertes aside and dabbed playfully with the point of his foil on Laertes’ backside.
Gertrude rose from her chair and, standing just to the side of Claudius, offered her napkin to mop her son’s brow, to which Hamlet responded “Good madam” in polite refusal. Gertrude turned to her husband, took the poisoned cup from his hand and strode to the centre of the piste announcing her carousal “to thy fortune, Hamlet”.
She was now too far from Claudius for him to physically restrain her without causing a scene: all he could do was whisper to her not to. But she insisted “I will my lord” and downed a substantial gulp. Hamlet first-timers in audience gasped at Gertrude drinking from the poisoned cup.
Gertrude approached Hamlet and wiped his face with her napkin, then crossed the piste to sit in the other chair away from Claudius, who slumped back in what had been Gertrude’s chair. Laertes approached Claudius and whispered to him that he would now strike his deadly blow at Hamlet.
The third bout was the briefest of sword clashes that was pronounced “Nothing neither way”, its hectic pace heralding the frantic action that immediately followed.
Laertes lunged at Hamlet crying “Have at you now!” and nicked him on the arm. Clasping his arm and enraged by the stinging pain, Hamlet rushed at Laertes and engaged him with his foil. This descended into a scuffle in which Hamlet threw Laertes’ foil to the ground. Having dropped his own, Hamlet punched and kicked, then recovered the poisoned foil and nicked Laertes with it on his bare arm.
Laertes collapsed and nursed his wound, realising that he was dying “justly killed with mine own treachery”, while Gertrude slumped forward in her chair, almost bent double at the waist. But on hearing Claudius’ false claim that she had merely fainted, she struggled to raise her head and contradicted him with a fading, croaking voice, announcing that her drink was poisoned.
A distraught Hamlet rushed to Gertrude’s side as she fell to the floor. He became quite tender, leaning over her and making comforting shushing noises before turning away to shout for the door to be locked.
Laertes revealed that the king was to blame and that his sword had been “unbated and envenomed”. Laertes’ foil had been picked up by Horatio who now offered it to his friend. Hamlet took the blade and jabbed it at Claudius as he sat helpless in his chair. The king said that he was “but hurt” and the unarmed attendants ran out, usefully clearing the stage. Hamlet ordered his father to “Follow my mother” and forced the rest of poisoned drink down his throat as he sat paralysed with fear. Claudius died instantly, his neck arched back, his head facing upwards.
The distraught Laertes wanted Hamlet’s forgiveness and Hamlet responded tenderly by making more comforting shushing noises as he crouched and hugged Laertes in reconcilement. Laertes then died in Hamlet’s arms, at which Hamlet plainly but forebodingly announced “I follow thee”.
Hamlet told Horatio “I am dead” and gave a bitter glance at the “wretched queen”, an interesting turnaround from his compassion for her as she died. It seemed on balance that he had more tenderness for Laertes than his mother.
“You that look pale and tremble at this chance” was addressed to the audience, but as he weakened Hamlet lost his train of thought, and for a second time told Horatio that he was dead.
He asked his friend to “report me and my cause aright”, but Horatio had taken the poisoned cup and tried to drink from it.
Instead of physically intervening, which often does not look credible from someone who is weak and dying, Hamlet tried instead to exert moral authority. He simply faced his friend and reasoned that if Horatio died, Hamlet would have a “wounded name”. This persuasive argument caused Horatio to think again. He threw the cup to the ground.
This staging was a really good choice and added much to the portrayal of Hamlet’s character and to his friendship with Horatio.
With the Norway subplot expunged from the production, there was no approach of Fortinbras and no ambassadors, so that the performance ended with:
O, I die Horatio,
The potent poison quite overcrows my spirit
[slumped to the ground on his hands and knees]
The rest is silence [said smilingly and hopefully at Horatio as he propped himself up with his hands]
[collapsed on his side - lit rectangle extinguished to mark Hamlet’s death]
Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet Prince,[kissed him]
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
[fade to blackout]
This production provided the reassurance of the familiar play together with the thrill of a complete new perspective. A woman as Hamlet defamiliarises the text but then proceeds to illuminate it. As Tony Howard pointed out in Women as Hamlet “The female Hamlet is a walking, speaking alienation effect”.
Maxine Peake presented Hamlet as a woman in male clothes with short hair, but used her own natural soft female voice. Her Hamlet displayed a mocking sense of humour even at some serious moments, deriving from his awareness that the court power structure made everyone act a part.
As he pointed out at the start, looking directly at Claudius, “they are actions that a man might play”. This production gave two levels of additional meaning to these words. Firstly, as an expression that men within the play were acting roles insincerely. Secondly, a comment on the play itself, consisting of “actions that a man might play” but were here being performed by a woman – and to great effect.
The relish with which this particular female actor sank her teeth into the juicy meat of one of theatre’s greatest roles was palpable.
Maxine Peake endowed Hamlet with mercurial alterations from calm to anger, dominance to self-doubt, stretching herself as an actor and making full use of her abilities in a complex and infinitely explorable part that is routinely and unjustly denied to half the profession.
The production’s treatment of role gender was as sophisticated as the play. Not only was Hamlet played by a woman as a man, but Polonius became a woman played by a woman. Other minor characters were treated in the same way. These changes made the play world look more recognisably like our own. Polonia in particular was a revelation and came close to stealing show from under Peake.
The audience was also a source of inspiration. Many at the Royal Exchange were seeing Hamlet for the first time. They gasped in shock at Polonia’s death, and reacted when Gertrude drank the poisoned drink meant for her son. Such reactions underscored the power of these plot twists.
Although not sung in the production itself, one particular line from the Bowie song Lady Grinning Soul seemed pertinent to the staging: “And when the clothes are strewn, don’t be afraid of the room”. The sentiment was apt for both Ophelia in her madness strewing her own clothes in her cell and also for Hamlet in the final scene amid the cloth circle.
This production was in part inspired by Phyllida Law’s continuing all-female prison Shakespeare project at the Donmar. It will no doubt be a source of inspiration to others who came to see a woman as Hamlet and went away with their heads buzzing with new ideas.
These are actions that a woman might play.