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Hamlet, Royal Exchange - Manchester

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. keyworthdavid@gmail.com https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
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Shakespeare to the max
Combine one of Shakespeare's most famous plays with an actor at the height of her powers and the result is a mind-expanding cocktail.

The production's first dramatic punch comes when a short-haired Maxine Peake walks on stage as the Prince of Denmark. From then on the question is whether she can maintain the level of interest for the next three hours.

Maxine Peake Hamlet
Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The answer is yes. Peake, famous for TV roles in The Village, Silk and Red Riding, amongst others, powerfully conveys Hamlet's despondency, grief and rage.

Her verse-speaking is particularly impressive. She delivers the lines as if it were normal to speak in verse, whilst also expressing their emotion and wit.
Maxine Peake Hamlet Royal Exchange
Maxine Peake. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

The production is performed to a jagged, jazz soundtrack by Alex Baranowski, which adds to the atmosphere of danger and disharmony. The music also includes Lady Grinning Soul - a David Bowie classic from his androgynous years. Pop music is not such an incongruous choice as it might seem, given that the production is in modern dress.

Peake is also helped along by a strong supporting cast. John Shrapnel as Claudius and Barbara Marten as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, acutely convey a struggle to maintain regal dignity under the strain of Hamlet's suspicions and accusations.
Hamlet Royal Exchange Barbara Marten
Barbara Marten as Gertrude and Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

Katie West, who excelled in Blindsided at the start of the year at the Royal Exchange, is compelling as Ophelia. She movingly captures the torment of a young woman whose faith in Hamlet makes his taunts and betrayal unbearable.
Katie West as Ophelia and Maxine Peake as Hamlet. Photo by Jonathan Keenan

But the night belongs to Maxine Peake. Director, Sarah Frankcom's casting of a female actor as Hamlet could have been a gimmick and in the hands of a lesser talent might have been. Maxine Peake's portrayal makes you wonder why it was ever a talking point at all.

The high demand for tickets resulted in the Royal Exchange adding an extra week of performances, meaning that you can see the play until Saturday 25 October.
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Why? Peake performance
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
Cost: From £10
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