Hamlet, Maxine Peake and daring staging: We interview Sarah Frankcom

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of Maxine Peake in a white shirt as Hamlet

Hamlet comes to the Royal Exchange Theatre this September – we ask director Sarah Frankcom what her plans are for this inventive production.

Maxine Peake will be playing Hamlet. Not Hamlet as a woman, or Hamlet as a man, but just, well, Hamlet. What is it about a woman performing a traditionally male role that still, now, in 2014, has us talking? Sarah Frankcom, director of Hamlet and Artistic Director at the Royal Exchange Theatre where it’s being staged, says it’s the question she’s been asked about more than any other – she also has thoughts on why. “Prescribed notions of gender – what is female, what is male – are all in flux at the moment,” she argues. “So with our Hamlet, Maxine’s Hamlet, she’s creating a character that’s as much male and as much female.” Perhaps what people are intrigued about is how this hybrid will reflect and further complicate our ideas about gender. But it goes further than that.

There’s a real curiosity around the way that this version will alter Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and a sense that this reinvention is somehow daring. Never mind that there’s already a historical precedent of Hamlet being played by women – or that Shakespeare’s source material for the play was gender complex. Not only did he draw the story from an old Danish legend, where Prince Hamlet was actually the tale of a girl princess dressed as a boy, the play was also written shortly after Shakespeare became father to twins, and his son Hamlet died. This version, then, is partly about refreshing the play for those who know it well – but also introducing it to those who’ve never seen it before.

“Prescribed notions of gender – what is female, what is male – are all in flux”

“You never do the definitive production of Hamlet, you just do a version of the play that you’re inspired by,” argues Frankcom. “So if there is an agenda, it’s not just to do with gender, it’s to do with really feeling that if a theatre that serves a big conurbation like Manchester is as relevant as it needs to be, then it needs to be a theatre that’s about everyone, rather than about a notion of what a theatre audience has been in the past.” The casting of Maxine Peake also speaks to this idea. She is one of the region’s best-loved actresses, not only for her talent, but also her human appeal. “Audiences can access her, she has an openness and a warmth and a vulnerability that makes people want to go with her,” notes Frankcom, adding that, “she sort of dares herself – when the brakes are off, she’s not worrying about how to stop.”

Frankcom’s own approach to the play is as audacious. “In the same way that I embrace and celebrate Maxine for her fearlessness, I want to be bold and move beyond naturalism in terms of its theatricality,” she says. Frankcom has also paid attention to detail, such as how to stage Hamlet’s many (and lengthy) soliloquies. “For me, they are as much a conversation with the 700 people who will be in the room as they are about Hamlet being alone,,” says Frankcom, pointing to the conflict between total isolation and constant surveillance that runs through the play.

This, too, will be something that the Royal Exchange’s audiences are likely to identify with: we are more watched than ever in the UK, whether via CCTV or someone else’s Instagram account. “There are a lot of ideas around what it’s like to live in a world where you don’t really trust anybody, and where your words can be recorded, or your words can be misinterpreted or used against you,” says Frankcom. “In the modern world, none of us can have a private moment at all.” Yet Hamlet is, in many ways, totally alone. “The play looks at how you can be who you really are in a world where the people around you see you as a certain thing,” says Frankcom. It seems that the loneliness that happens in the midst of this is not about being watched, but about really being seen.

So, Maxine Peake will play Hamlet. As she draws her audience into Hamlet’s soliloquies, blurring the boundary between a public and private self, a step will be taken beyond gender, performance or theatre, even, and into the idea of what it is to be human in the modern world. “It might be a great grand failure,” admits Frankcom – but it might also be electric. In a few weeks’ time, we’ll see.

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