The Royal Exchange theatre is one of the reasons why Manchester is a great place for a cultural life. It is everything that regional theatre should be: challenging, innovative, exciting and encased in original architecture. As soon as it was announced that Maxine Peake had been cast as Hamlet, I ordered my tickets. I am so glad I did: first because it sold out and second because she was superb. (You can find the range of reviews of her performance – here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29235529)
Casting a woman as Hamlet is an interesting but not novel decision. It has been done many times before (although not for 35 years on the British stage) and I have always understood that decision from a performer’s point of view. Hamlet is a complex and intriguing role to play, especially when compared to the women in the play. The role of Gertrude is to look dignified, say few words and be excluded to the point that she unwittingly causes her own death. Ophelia, like Hamlet descends into madness, but her loss of sanity is silent and silenced, whereas Hamlet’s is articulated, conscious and with conscience. Of course a performer of any gender would want to tackle the complexity of Hamlet’s tragedy.
However, this was the first time I had encountered the decision as a member of the audience and I was unsure what it would mean. However, I was surprised that, for the most part, it did not matter. In theatre, you have to suspend disbelief. Shakespeare does not do ‘naturalism’. The dialogue, the set, casting and production were not designed to provide realism. That Hamlet was a fresh-faced, feminine man was just absorbed in the performance. However, that fresh-face did remind me that Hamlet is a young man, a university student. (In the 19th Century an actress playing Hamlet was a political statement – a woman could play a university student but could not be educated within a university (Howard2007)). Peake’s Hamlet looks young and vulnerable. His/her masculinity is inexperienced, obviously being tried out and worn-in, in similar ways to the young men I witness starting university. It is being practiced and rehearsed. I feel obliged at this point to reference Judith Butler and her discussion about drag, gender and performativity.
Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow; rather gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts. (Butler, 1999: 191, emphasis in original)
So, while we see Hamlet struggle to come to terms with his new-found manhood, Hamlet’s masculinity is also being manipulated. We are invited to watch him talk to himself, to ghosts, to friends, to skulls as he plots actions, just as we watch those in power do likewise. When Hamlet does this, it is madness. When a King does it, it is politics. His loss, grief and friendships are not taken seriously by those in power. They are merely to be controlled or destroyed. So, in this production, I saw Hamlet as an inter-generational struggle. The generation with power is eager to discredit and remove power from the following generation, to define grief as dysfunctional, to manipulate and discredit any political action taken by the young, to buy favours and manipulate those at the fringes of power, whilst refusing to acknowledge the enormity of their own wrong-doing.
Does a play about medieval Denmark still have relevance for social justice today? I would say so.
Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble [2nd Edition] London: Routledge
Howard, T. (2007) Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction Cambridge: Cambridge University Press