2015: Sarah Frankcom, Margaret Williams
Maxine Peake, who brought to screen an acidic and preposterous rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016, here appears in Hamlet as the eponymous prince. The tradition of having a woman play Hamlet is not anything new: it goes back at least to the eighteenth century, and Hamlet was most famously played by Sarah Bernhardt, the celebrated French actress of the nineteenth century praised by Edouard Rostand and Oscar Wilde. It was her opinion (based on what assumptions, I do not know) that Hamlet should only ever be played by a woman. I confess that the rationale does puzzle me somewhat. Hamlet is neither a woman nor particularly epicene: he’s a man of thirty years.
The production (recorded from a stage performance in front of a live audience) was received by critics with extravagant enthusiasm on some parts, and fairly tepid responses on others. I neither think it one of the best versions I have ever seen nor one of the worst. It’s played with verve and intensity by some very good actors, and it does some ingenious things with the theatrical space. It takes the script and story of Hamlet seriously, though I personally think it is more invested in the dominant psychological understanding of the play than in what I consider the more correct spiritual one. For that one can consult my general comments on the play.
The text of the play is significantly cut, but whole scenes are not usually discarded. The “To be or not to be” speech is not in its accustomed position before the encounter with Ophelia; it’s been postponed to the position after the killing of Polonius. Ultimately, I’m not sure it works. This is a peculiar decision, though the proper placement of the speech is the matter of some textual contention. The various early editions of the Hamlet text are not in good shape. There are several unfortunate cuts, in which there is a setup line that is shorn of its response. When Hamlet says, “There’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark / But he’s an arrant knave,” Horatio’s response, “There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this,” is funny. It’s also missing here. More importantly, when Polonius (or here, Polonia) tells Hamlet (speaking of the players), “My lord, I will use them according to their desert,” Hamlet’s response is one of the more important moral lines in the play: “God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.” It’s a line one needs to hear these days.
Though a woman, and not one who can easily be mistaken for a man, Peake does play Hamlet as a man. Not all the roles in the play are given the same clearance. Polonius is turned summarily into Polonia; the gravediggers and one of the guards in the first scene (Francisco) are women; so is Rosencrantz. This occasions some minor ruffling of the script, but none of it intrudes too terribly on the substance of the play, except for the transformation of Polonius. There I believe that the change degrades the parallelism between Hamlet and Laertes, which is important, and is also echoed in the Player King’s speech respecting Pyrrhus (who, for those unfamiliar with the story, is the son of Achilles — also known as Neoptolemus). The player king is a player queen. She has magnificent presence, and delivers a truncated version of the Player’s speech with real finesse. A bunch of kids onstage inexplicably begin drumming on the floor as she continues. The player queen is a player king. This gives rise to a fair amount of gender-confused dialogue. I’m not sure that it raises any useful points.
With that proviso, most of the performances are electrifyingly strong.
Peake’s performance is in general quite solid, if one can get over seeing her as a woman pretending to be a man. There are places where she seems not to get the import of the line. “Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” is normally punctuated thus, and the implication is clear: that is, “Foul deeds will rise to men’s eyes (i.e., come to light) though all the world should overwhelm them.” She pronounces it as if “to men’s eyes” somehow were modifying “though all the earth o’erwhelm them”. I have not yet figured out how that makes sense. I don’t think it does. Similarly, Hamlet’s reply to Rosencrantz’ and Guildenstern’s question, “Why, any thing, but to the purpose,” depends on its punctuation for sense. If one omits the comma after “thing”, it changes the meaning to something like “Anything except what’s to the point,” whereas I think it means “Whatever you have to say, but answer truly.” Basically that’s the opposite. I’m more than open to the possibility of syntactical ambiguity in Shakespeare, and in Hamlet in particular, but I don’t think either of these is a case of it. Her reflection on killing Claudius is interrupted, in the script, with “That would be scann’d” — basically the point at which Hamlet realizes that this might have the unexpected consequence of sending Claudius to heaven. Peake rattles past it without any apparent recognition, and later seems to discover the truth of it for herself. Overall, Peake’s performance of the role is more intense, I think, than wise: I think it misses a good deal of what makes Hamlet work. But there is plenty of room for disagreement there, and one of the joys of watching multiple renditions of these roles is in taking in the variations.
Polonia strikes a remarkable balance between dignity and fatuous buffoonery, with finesse and gestural subtlety. Even though I’m not enthusiastic for the change in gender in the characters, I cannot fail to appreciate her fine performance. Her speech to Claudius and Gertrude, telling them that Hamlet is mad, is robustly hilarious and tragic all at the same time.
Ophelia and Laertes are both played with real finesse; I found the weakest link here, though, in Ophelia’s mad scenes toward the end.
When Gertrude is not speaking, she’s a model of reserved dignity, but also seems to be one of those actresses who believes one must be either nodding or wagging the head whenever one has lines to speak. Eventually it gets wearying.
The ghost is in general not played by an actual actor at first, but is represented by a kind of buzzy light show. In principle, I find this problematic, because it has a tendency to represent the ghost as a kind of psychological aberration in Hamlet’s mind. When he actually has lines to speak, he is played by John Shrapnel, the same actor who plays Claudius. Having the same actor play Claudius and Old Hamlet is a production decision that (like many) fights against the text somewhat: when Hamlet compares the one to the other (in their pictures — which are merely imagined here), it doesn’t make a lot of sense, other than as a manifestation of a completely subjective view, to say that they look very different when we’ve just seen them looking exactly the same. That being said, Shrapnel plays both roles with masterly finesse. It’s a superb pair of performances.
As in a number of productions, the mistaking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is made clear by Gertrude’s gesture, where she is apparently correcting Claudius, “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz”, a now-routine tip of the hat, as far as I can tell, to Tom Stoppard. It’s not an unreasonable way to read the line, but I don’t think there’s anything in the script to make it required. It’s a somewhat arch nod and wink at the audience, and perhaps by now it could be retired. Rosenccrantz, in the first meeting with Hamlet, offers him what is apparently cocaine. Hamlet declines it with the protestation that he has bad dreams, so Rosencrantz snorts it herself. I’m not certain what this actually offers to the play by way of character interest; it merely seems to be a way of denoting that the play is ever so contemporary.
The interstitial music between the scenes is a clangorous melange of jazz and noise, particularly siren-like wails and buzzing electric sounds. I could have done without them. They seem to be instructing the audience to feel alarmed. (It calls to mind the advertising riff for Alien: “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”) If one needs to be instructed in that, the drama itself is probably not working. It could have been better without, I think.
The DVD I have (and I assume this is true of all of them) is significantly out of sync with the soundtrack, with the result that it’s best not to watch the actors’ mouths too closely.
Hamlet is not free of sexual innuendo and some fairly explicit humor, but much of it can be played at two levels, with at least some degree of subtlety. This production generally chooses the low road: if something can be made explicit, or if it can be made up and then mimed with one’s groin, it will be. The extent of genital pawing and physical sexual innuendo might disqualify this for some younger viewers. I think it’s not a good fit for younger students in any case, since it is highly abstract in much of its staging; Hamlet is a difficult enough play that one can use all the help one can get. For more mature students of Shakespeare, though, it’s certainly a performance worth study and examination.
Bernardo: Ben Stott
Claudius: John Shrapnel
First Gravedigger: Michelle Butterly
Francisco: Tachia Newall
Gertrude: Barbara Marten
Ghost: John Shrapnel
Guildenstern: Peter Singh
Hamlet: Maxine Peake
Horatio: Thomas Arnold
Laertes: Ashley Zhangazha
Lucianus: Dean Gregory
Marcella: Claire Benedict
Margaret: Michelle Butterly
Ophelia: Katie West
Osric: Ben Stott
Player King: Claire Benedict
Player Queen: Ben Stott
Player: Jason Lamar Ricketts
Polonia: Gillian Bevan
Priest: Tachia Newall
Reynaldo: Tachia Newall
Rosencrantz: Jodie McNee
Second Gravedigger: Jodie McNee