Before the performance begins, the audience are confronted with two boxes on stage. They are filled with clothes and rapier handles that jut out from the sea of material. The display is a reminder of the production’s preoccupation with artifice and the role of costumes in establishing gender, while the twin boxes suggest the play’s many parallels. The director Sarah Frankcom adds complexity to these parallels by changing many of the characters gender from male to female. The implication of this gender change is perhaps to illustrate how fluid gender has become. There are no longer fixed roles for men and women. Polonius becomes Polonia played by the excellent Gillian Bevan who makes Laertes’ and Ophelia’s mother a bossy comic character. Polonia is in striking contrast to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude performed by the tall thin Barbara Marten with an endearing maternal gentleness. Yet Polonia’s death still parallels the murder of Hamlet’s father, as Bevan’s councillor of state is a loud busy-body matriarch. Therefore, Polonia makes an intriguing authoritative mother-father figure that is dichtomous to Gertrude’s soft-voiced sensitivity.
Arguably the play’s most complex character is Hamlet performed by an incredible Maxine Peake. The emotional energy Peake invests in her performance is a riveting and unforgettable spectacle. Although Peake is female, Hamlet is still treated as male. This gender masking enables Peake to add a roguish charm to the role. Her laddishness is enhanced by her baggy trousers in which her hands slip easily in and out of the pockets she pulls taut, short hair, boyish looks and often cocky swagger. Hamlet’s dangerous instability and frustration is shown in tense moments by a gun-wielding Peake who reveals a pistol (perhaps suggesting the female Hamlet’s phallus) in order to effect some kind of commanding power. Peake’s astonishing performance accentuates Hamlet’s battle against oppression in which ‘Denmark’s a prison’ (II.ii.243). Polonia’s remark that ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t’ (II.ii.205-6) indicates the soul-destroying anguish Peake’s character struggles with.
One of the production’s most affecting moments comes when Hamlet pulls the pistol on his mother Gertrude when she tries to walk away. Hamlet’s threatening behaviour melts into heart-breaking grief when he shares with Gertrude the truth of his father’s death. Marten and Peake are totally convincing as mother and son as they hug each other on the stage floor, their tears mingling. The ghost’s arrival that Hamlet can only see and talk to gives Marten a demanding motherly role she embraces. She lovingly comforts Hamlet and explains away his behaviour as ‘This is the very coinage of your brain’ (III.iv.139) in a seamless tug-of-war dialogue with Peake whose warnings about Gertrude’s recent husband are ignored.
As both Claudius and the ghost, John Shrapnel provides the production’s uncanny moment. Predictably, he plays Hamlet’s father’s ghost dressed in white and is convincing as a spirit trapped by the injustice of a brutal murder that needs to be revenged. Though in Act III, scene iii, where Claudius admits his guilt to killing his brother, Shrapnel wears a white shirt. The initial impression is of the ghost and Claudius becoming one. Claudius’ guilt and the ghost’s betrayal mingle to perhaps answer the king’s question: ‘May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?’ (III.iii.56). By praying, the implication is of Claudius speaking into the space that his brother’s ghost occupies. The effect is of Claudius appealing to the ghost that, because the same actor plays both parts, signifies how the king asks his own conscience for forgiveness. Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius in this vulnerable spiritual and mental state indicates he would be pardoned, if only to unify with his brother’s ghost in purgatory.
Hamlet’s hesitancy to kill his uncle contrasts with his brutal shooting of Polonia that ends the first half of the production. After the interval, Peake reappears in a white blood-stained shirt and hands to launch into the famous ‘To be or not be’ soliloquy, which has been moved from Act III to even more powerful effect as his musings on humanity’s mortal struggle and the apparent attractiveness of death incorporate Polonia’s murder. In these powerful dramatic moments it is easy to forget that Peake is a woman and Hamlet a man. Within this gender-specific no man’s land, it is interesting to note how Ophelia’s breakdown, played by a convincingly fragile Katie West, parallels what is often referred to in the play as Hamlet’s ‘madness’. Within a luminiscent blue outline of a black rectangle, West strips sorrowfully to her white underwear. Yet Peake ‘s body hides beneath shapeless clothing with the shirt buttons firmly fastened. The implication is that Hamlet’s ‘madness’ is a masculine-fuelled passive-aggressive anguish, while Ophelia’s breakdown is a demeaning exposure of female flesh and the innate helplessness that comes with it. Added to this is how Ophelia cowers in one corner of the rectangle, while her clothes are prominently displayed as separate garments in the rectangle’s centre. The production appears to question what defines gender more: a person’s clothes or their body?
Clothes appear to be the answer as they drop from the theatre’s ceiling on to the stage floor for the graveyard scene. This jumbled collection of clothing may simulate soil and/or people’s remains. Indeed, Yorick’s skull is represented as a knotted white jumper. More striking is how Ophelia’s corpse is signified by her dress that is laid out perfectly in her grave. Another indication of the close affinity between clothes and women is suggested by the gravediggers being played by the excellent Michelle Butterly and Jodie McNee who are literally rummaging through the clothing on stage as though a jumble sale. In this scene that makes death less intimidating or perhaps grotesque (depending if the clothes are viewed as human remains), the female association with sewing and stitching to make apparel resonates with the woman’s biological capacity to breed or make children. Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia explicit in ‘Get thee to a nunnery! Why, wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?’ (III.i.121-2) emphasises the fear of more death and misery being bred in a Royal family plagued by tragedy. Therefore, the play’s preoccupation with breeding and death, further implied when Hamlet asks Polonia, ‘For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion – Have you a daughter?'(II.ii.181-2), are accentuated by the production’s creative use of clothing.
Peake’s Hamlet, then, does not strut about the stage in a floral dress. She wears distinctly loose clothing that privileges neither a male or female body. This is not to discount Peake’s femininity, which I believe is not this production’s aim, but to indicate a slippage between the established boundaries denoted by masculinity and femininity. What Peake achieves is neatly paralleled by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz who are presented as thuggish caricatures dressed in punk-style leather jackets, and street-wise costumes they slouch in. The gum-chewing Rosencrantz is played by the brilliantly sleazy and rat-like Jodie McNee in a complete contrast to her role as the 2nd gravedigger (I actually thought they were two different actresses). At first, however, I wondered if Peter Singh as Guildenstern was too wooden. Yet he is effective as a sycophant treating Claudius and initially Hamlet as though treading on eggshells. Thus, what Singh and McNee reveal with their implied similarity between Guildenstern and Rosencrantz is how notions of masculinity and femininity cross-over to present a flirtatious male and slimy female instead of the more traditional slimy man and flirtatious woman. Peake similarly alternates her portrayal of Hamlet between a vulnerable boy/man and butch female. Though it is striking how Shakespeare’s play ends with Fortinbras’ claim on the kingdom with his praise of Hamlet’s masculinity (omitted from Frankcom’s production):
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him. (V.ii.400-405
The indication that Hamlet ‘prov’d most royal’ is an assertion of his manliness in the face of adversity. Hamlet not only avenged his father’s death but showed a strength in his swordplay fitting of a king. Yet it is a fitting for this production’s version of the play to end on Horatia’s softly spoken ‘sweet prince’ (V.ii.364) to Hamlet’s clothed lifeless body. The epithet appears to do justice to Peake’s powerful performance as Hamlet without it being diluted by further events. Though I would hesitate to name the female Hamlet a ‘sweet prince’. He is more a courageous princess who challenged patriarchal power by not only avenging her father’s murder, but by failing to do the ghost’s bidding immediately.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1599. Ed. Harold Jenkins. The Arden Shakespeare: London, 1982.