Maxine Peake interview: Hamlet, acting challenges and a cycling queen

Kevin Bourke

Maxine Peake is an actress who likes to push herself – we found out why.

The joyfully intrigued reaction to the announcement that Maxine Peake was going to be starring as Hamlet in the Royal Exchange’s Autumn season was surely positive proof of just how much the Bolton-born actress is both admired and loved. With the recent confirmation that the production, directed by Exchange Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, will run from Thursday 11 September to Saturday 18 October, it seemed high time to catch up with an actress who’s taken many an intriguing turn in recent years. When we met in The Lowry’s café, Peake told me why she won’t just be ‘Princess of Denmark’.

It all started with a production of Miss Julie, directed by Sarah Frankcom at the Exchange in 2012. “I’ve maybe got a strange idea of what people think I do and what I’m capable of,” admits Peake, leaning forward over one of her ever-present cups of tea. “So after we’d done that I just said to Sarah – who directed me in that and more recently The Masque Of Anarchy – ‘we’ve got this opportunity now where there’s no boundaries, so we’ve got to challenge ourselves, perhaps even to the point where overstretch ourselves’. I was sort of half-joking when I threw the idea of Hamlet at her. But then we just thought ‘why not?’” Peake’s reasoning makes a lot of sense: “I honestly believe that’s what you have to do when you have that sort of opportunity,” she argues.

Although she’s so down to earth that you can practically see passers-by in the café wondering ‘is that her?’, Peake takes her contribution to the arts scene in the Northwest seriously – even daring to hope that Hamlet (along with the likes of the Manchester International Festival and HOME in 2015) could help metro-centric critics and arts funders acknowledge that there really is vibrant theatre scene outside London. “It’s not that I hate London or anything like that,” she emphasizes, “but with all the cuts in arts funding and theatre being so London-centric at the moment, we’ve just got to get a grasp of it in the regions and do something for ourselves that’s exciting and challenging.”

“So far, men have had all the fun!”

Peake’s socialist principles and her deep northern roots are powerful motivators but, essentially, acting is her job – and it’s one she takes seriously. However, playing Hamlet entails a different kind of pressure. “Male actors I know who’ve played Hamlet keep saying what a huge responsibility it is to play that part. But, even though I’m petrified, I’m not a man so I don’t feel that sort of responsibility”, she argues. “I just feel excited and, if we fail, we fail. But it’s about having a go, about saying we can do it.” Peak is adamant that this part has got absolutely nothing to do with gender-swapping for shock’s sake. “When there are all-male companies doing Shakespeare, no one minds and no one should bat an eye if a woman plays Hamlet or Henry V,” she asserts. “We’re actors doing a part and, on stage now in 2014, it’s about time there was a freedom to do that. When else are female actors going to get an opportunity to do those great speeches? So far, men have had all the fun!”

Peake is also joining the Royal Exchange as an Associate Artist, a role that should include opportunities for her to get involved in the theatre’s work with community groups and young people from across the city, drawing not only on her acting talents but also her recently revealed skills as a writer. Her plays Beryl: A Love Story On Two Wheels and Queens Of the Coal Age have both been broadcast by BBC Radio 4 – and she’s turned Beryl into a stage play for West Yorkshire Playhouse, opening next month. The script tells the story of Leeds-born Beryl Burton, a racing cyclist and one of Britain’s greatest-ever athletes. Beryl was a housewife who received no support, training or sponsorship, but nonetheless dominated women’s cycle racing in the UK from the 50s into the 80s, winning more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles – as well as setting numerous records.

Yet Burton is virtually unknown outside of cycling circles, which seems quite astonishing today when the likes of Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins are such celebrities. “I do a bit of cycling myself, but I’d never heard of her either, before my boyfriend gave me a copy of Beryl’s autobiography that he’d found, with the inscription ‘Get yourself a tight perm and there’s a film in this for you’!” admits Maxine. “I’d never done any writing, just bits for myself, but I was fascinated by this story. I wanted to write something about ordinary people who did just carry on with normal everyday lives while they also had this extraordinary other life.”

The broadcast on Radio 4 last November led to the commission from West Yorkshire Playhouse. This begs the question of whether can Peake see herself writing further dramas with great female characters centre stage? “I know there are more stories out there of forgotten women, whether it’s in politics or sport or wherever, and if I had a daughter, they would be the sort of role models I’d like her to have. I’m not exactly down with the kids but these days there are still women whose stories are inspiring. Like Beth Ditto or Adele, even though her music isn’t especially to my taste.”

Peake’s own musical tastes range from Japanese black metal, garage rock and folk, to techno and psychobilly. She’s an inveterate raider of charity shops for obscure vinyl and has worked on her own musical projects, as well as directing a video for Cherry Ghost. “This has been a year of things I never thought I’d do,” she laughs. “I get slightly embarrassed when actors say ‘Oh, we’re artists’, but I want to be as creative as possible and this was another avenue. It’s not about being fashionable or cool, and certainly not a career move.” In fact, this desire comes from far more personal motivations: “These are things I might not have had a go at when I was younger and scared that I might not be any good at them,” she explains. “As you get older you get more fearless and I’d rather have had a go and maybe been shot down in flames than to regret not doing something when I had the chance.”

Even so, Peake admits to having been than a bit reluctant to have her portrait painted by Jonathan Yeo, for his current exhibition at The Lowry (until 29 June). “I got an email from The Lowry,” she remembers, “asking if I would have my portrait painted and I thought, ‘no, that’s just the height of vanity!’ I found it all a little bit uncomfortable and I didn’t do anything for a couple of weeks. Then I spoke to a few people who said ‘he’s a great artist, you must do it’ and, now, I’m really glad I did it.” Peake told me about the process behind it: “We only did a couple of three-hour sittings and, actually, we did start by talking about the idea of him painting me as Hamlet. But, even though I’m not superstitious, I just felt like I was tempting fate by being painted as a character I hadn’t played yet.” Just like not naming The Scottish Play, you can’t blame her – but, honestly, we have every faith that Hamlet will be amazing.

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