By Jacqueline Grima
Members of the British Council and other guests gathered at HOME, Manchester this week for a screening of Hamlet, starring Maxine Peake and directed by Sarah Frankcom. The event formed part of Manchester’s annual Wonder Women festival.
The film was also shown as part of the ‘Shakespeare Lives’ series of events which celebrate the life and work of the playwright who died 400 years ago this year. With over half of the world’s children studying Shakespeare’s work, it is clear that the issues and messages in his plays are still relevant even in the 21st century. This particular version of Hamlet was recently filmed at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre where it ran for seven weeks and was seen by over 30,000 people. It was chosen for the Wonder Women event due to the way the casting of a female protagonist challenges gender roles in the often male-dominated world of theatre. Hamlet, in Sarah Frankcom’s version, was born female but identifies as male in adulthood.
The modern air of this production, shown through the 21st century costuming (and occasional Scouse accent), gave the play a highly contemporary feel. Maxine Peake, with her boyish hair and clothes, cuts a striking figure as Hamlet, her somewhat unsettling mannish air honed to perfection and her portrayal of the Danish prince’s struggles with the corruption, and his own role, in his household, often heart-wrenching to watch. His relationship with Ophelia, played with a beautiful sense of innocent naivety by Katie West, and her subsequent descent into self-destruction as he brutally dismisses her, is nothing short of heart breaking. Despite the film’s epic length, the audience’s eyes barely stray from the screen as, all traces of previous roles gone, Maxine commands the stage, her skills as a fencer also apparent in Hamlet’s concluding battle with Laertes.
Also brought very much to the fore in this version of the play is Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, Gertrude, played by Barbara Marten. In other versions of the play, the cast often male-dominated, Gertrude seems to be dismissed as a rash and fickle figure. In Frankcom’s play, however, Gertrude’s intelligence is clear and her character much easier to sympathise with, her close and troublesome relationship with Hamlet forming a key aspect of the performance. This focus on the women of the play is also made apparent by Frankcom’s exploration of Hamlet’s other roles. Traditionally played by a man, Polonius, the King’s chancellor, here, becomes Polonia, played with a fantastic sense of deadpan by Gillian Bevan. Additionally, Rosencrantz is played by Jodie McNee.
After the film, a panel of women from the creative industries discussed the production’s exploration of gender roles. Director of Literature at the British Council, Cortina Bell, who chaired the discussion, said, “That was the most extraordinary production of Hamlet that I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen many.”
Cortina went on to ask Sarah Frankcom her reasons behind casting Maxine Peake in the title role. Sarah told how she had worked with Maxine for ten years and how the actor often suggested that they produce Hamlet together but that she herself had had doubts. She said, “We are both strong feminists but Hamlet is a real challenge and we didn’t know if we were going to find a way to make it relevant in the world we live in.”
She added, “We are both, as makers, interested in gender and the fluidity of gender. There is a strong spine in this [play] that is a meditation on the transgender experience.”
Sarah also commented on the success of the play’s portrayal of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, saying, “It felt like it was a play about a mother whereas it is often seen as a play about a father.”
The panel included theatre director, Yvonne Murphy, who has also challenged gender roles in Shakespeare’s work. Yvonne has staged plays that have included all-female performances of Richard III and Henry VI. She said, “So many people came up to me afterwards and said, ‘It just doesn’t matter. We thought it was going to but it didn’t.’”
Sarah agreed, saying, “Now we know we’ve got the freedom to do it with Shakespeare, I think we can do it with anything and I think we will.”
Other guests on the panel included poet, Collette Bryce, Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer, Dr Sonja Lawrenson, and Executive Producer and Director of Nine Lives Media, Cat Lewis. Issues discussed included how women are vastly underrepresented in the world of published poetry and how women in the creative industries are often constrained by difficulties surrounding childcare.
For more information about other events in the Wonder Women festival, see the Creative Tourist website.
For more information about the work of the British Council, see their website