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Following an immediate sell-out of tickets for Sarah Frankcom’s production of Hamlet (reviewed in my last post) that necessitated a further week of performances and widespread media attention, the Royal Exchange Theatre hosted a panel discussion with Frankcom, Tony Howard and Maggie Gale. Both Howard and Gale have an academic background in theatre. Tony Howard is a Professor at the University of Warwick specialising in Shakespeare performance who has published the book Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction (2007). The chair, Maggie Gale, is a Professor of drama at the University of Manchester. What follows is my summary of a fascinating discussion that not only debated gender issues, but also the theatre’s role in our entertainment-saturated society.

The discussion began with Maggie Gale asking Sarah Frankcom the related questions: Why Hamlet? Why Hamlet now? Frankcom replied how Hamlet is the only Shakespeare play she is interested in after studying it at A level. Frankcom also identifies with the Hamlet character. She understands what he is going through as she has lost her own father. Furthermore, she knew Maxine Peake wished to play Hamlet. Having known Peake artistically for ten years, Frankcom described how the actress is fearless, passionate, provocative and therefore the ideal person to play the lead role.

Gale then turned to Tony Howard and asked why women as Hamlet? Howard responded with everyone can identify with Hamlet. Shakespeare’s main tragic characters King Lear, Othello, Macbeth are all about violence. Hamlet is different. The play appeals to all ages and cultures, male and female. Howard then put the female Hamlet in an historical context by stating that in 1660, Charles II allowed women to act in the theatre for the first time. Hamlet encourages actresses to explore deeper emotions. Howard mentioned that inspiration for his book came when he saw a production of a female political Hamlet in Poland during martial law. The Polish production challenged how the world works, and assumptions that women can only play certain parts.

Gale asked Frankcom the intriguing question: What was the authentic Shakespeare when you began?

Frankcom admitted she had never done Shakespeare before. She is even worried when watching Shakespeare, as she is not sure what is happening in the plays. Frankcom is concerned with clarity and approaching Hamlet as a new play. Although a lot of people disagree, Shakespeare was a writer and an actor. His plays are a map or a starting point to be interpreted. Frankcom wished to create a production that is accessible to 700 people at a basic level. She had talked with Maxine Peake right at the beginning about the play’s political dimension with Fortinbras. It appeared weird to Frankcom that there is an army invading Elsinore at the end of Hamlet. First and foremost, the play is about family.

Gale shared how the production has made many splashes in the National Press and blogs commenting on the critical response to the play, which has involved the city of Manchester in a positive way.

Frankcom agreed that there has been an extraordinary response to her production. She thinks that is what theatre should be about. Whatever is happening here is part of a zeitgeist, and theatre should be part of a zeitgeist. Frankcom is angry at some of the reviews, and feels vulnerable because the production is being misinterpreted. The tickets being sold out before the production began is down to Maxine being Hamlet in her hometown. She also feels supported by the audience that has attended the production (full house every night), and is encouraged by their response.

Maggie Gale then opened the discussion out to the floor for questions. I asked Frankcom if clothes are a major part of defining gender in the production, as they feature prominently in the graveyard scene? There is also an interesting contrast with Ophelia stripping to her underwear and Hamlet’s genderless costume.

Frankcom responded by stating gender is a spectrum that is not clearly defined anymore. People playing roles assume identities and pretend to be who they are not. She has been in productions where actors do not start their roles with what they will wear, but actresses do. Something that has really bothered Frankcom. She added that the tradition in theatre is that female actors have not been treated as having the same intellectuality as male actors. We are not far from that now.

Another audience member asked Frankcom about the moving of the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy from scene III. Frankcom began by stating Hamlet kills someone in the play. Although it happened by accident, the implication of the murder gets lost in subsequent events. By killing someone and then lugging the body off stage is going to affect Hamlet. Therefore, the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy sat there better with Hamlet at his most vulnerable, as that is the question he needs to exit with to England.

The final question was from an audience member who commented on how the production has raised a lot of gender issues. They asked Frankcom if she would return to traditional methods. Frankcom answered by simply saying she has always had strong female protagonists in all her productions apart from A View from the Bridge (2011). The female Hamlet is not a gimmick just part of what she has always done; business as usual as far as Frankcom is concerned. She mentioned that future projects will be more noticeable for what she and Maxine Peake are doing.

The panel discussion ended with a strong sense that Frankcom’s production of Hamlet has helped transform Manchester into Britain’s culture capital, and that Hamlet has become a distinctly Mancunian role. It also demonstrates Shakespeare’s enduring ability to place theatre at the heart of our communities in which the Royal Exchange Theatre serves Manchester proud.