For quite a while now, the classic plays of William Shakespeare have been tweaked to modernize the setting or reflect current social changes, and the consistency of those alternate versions naturally make it more difficult to do so in subtle ways that haven't been done before. Therefore, to strike those kinds of chords in the current climate, changes to Shakespeare's source material tend to be more dramatic and bolder in how they reshape the world and context in which they're taking place. Manchester's Royal Exchange Theater have been intrepid in their efforts to retain the essence of Shakespeare's prose while also reimagining characters as other genders, but not quite to the degree of their recent production of Hamlet, in which they've not only cast a female in the traditionally male lead role, but also integrated that gender bend into the overarching narrative. That interesting twist on Shakespeare's ideas, due diligence in sticking to the bard's tempo, and a bravely manic, uniquely androgynous performance from Maxine Peake get weighed down by a distractingly unfocused execution of period and themes, though.
What's different in this rendition of Hamlet? On the surface and at the foundation, by design of director Sarah Frankcom, not that much: Shakespeare's tale of Hamlet follows a familiar path as the character grieves the death of King Hamlet of Denmark, the father, while uncle Claudius (John Shrapnel) has claimed the throne and married the deceased's widow. After being visited by the Ghost of King Hamlet and told about the plot involving his murder and usurping of the throne, Hamlet plots a retaliation against Claudius as madness and vengeance consume the character, stretching across the five-act structure as Shakespeare's machination revel in surreal visits from the deceased, a play-within-a-play, and a dramatic climax involving a sword duel. The key difference here, of course, comes in the casting of Peake as Hamlet, but also in a few tweaks to the production's perception of the character: Hamlet was born as a woman but identifies as a man, throwing a twist into the play's perceptions of hierarchy, legacy, and even gender.
This, of course, isn't the first time Hamlet has been played by a woman; notably, Asta Nielsen conjured a solemn take of the character in a ‘20s silent film version of the story, while Diane Venora became the first to embody the Dane at the major New York Shakespeare Showcase in the mid ‘80s. The difference lies in the overtness of Maxine Peake's channeling of gender through her Hamlet, on top of how the reimagined take on the narrative shines a spotlight on how she's adhered to a male role in that society. Peake's performance shrewdly captures the electricity of the character's obsession and mania, existing in a compelling space of androgyny that conveys both traditional masculine brashness and feminine rationale, with her chaotic facial expressions and sporadic hand gestures conveying theatrical mania. Peake's sharper, colder demeanor lacks the raw human emotion that often befits Hamlet, though, leaving scenes where the character interacts with old friends and simmering family members without the warmth or fire befitting such moments. While captivating, her passion and zeal lack groundedness.
From a visual and tonal standpoint, this Hamlet has a timelessly eclectic property conveyed through the soft glow of dangling lightbulbs, sharp business suits, and eventually weathered woodgrain of the stage, which allows its audience to glimpse at an indistinct, modern-ish environment. In terms of the set presentation to the costume design, the individual design components can be exciting to look at -- Peake eventually ditches a heavy trench coat to reveal something close to a Chinese tunic-slash-pantsuit -- but they're also a perplexing hodgepodge that struggles to transport one's point-of-view to specific surroundings. This proves to be a showcase for the cast's talents and enunciations of Shakespeare's classic prose, unobstructed by design so that the pragmatic machinations of Claudius, the disappointed romanticism of Ophelia, and the vacillating allegiance of Rosencrantz and (a female) Guildenstern stand on their own. The vague setting alongside tunnel-vision concentration on murder mystery and flirtations with social context weaken the show's impact, especially the supernatural communication sequences.
Recorded in 2015 at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, this presentation of Hamlet doesn't attempt to have the same visual impact as, say, the masterfully constructed Gregory Dolan hybrid of cinematic flow and stage presence from almost a decade ago, this one serving more as a direct reflection of what the audience might've seen at the theater. There's just enough artful play on angles and close-ups for this to be looked at as a film-like exercise, though, and it focuses too intently on the actors' enlarged theatrical performances for a sizable crowd; what works in performances when viewed at even a meager distance can appear overstated at too-close quarters, especially when it comes to Peake's portrayal of the lead character. At times, I really wished that the camerawork would've just stood back a bit more and allowed me to better take in the full breadth of the stage and the people occupying it, because getting that close in doesn't do the utilitarian production design any favors. It's a modern Hamlet, for better and for worse.
Video and Audio:
Hamlet's 1.78:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced transfer from Film Movement gets the job done in predictable fashion for the performance, with few frills and visual allures. The disc's grasp on depth and dimensionality does accentuate its close-ups, allowing the shape of faces and the different folds and textures of the garments to stand out well. For the most part, the visual palette echoes the grays and blues of the costume design, yielding a colder color temperature throughout that's intermittently interrupted by the warm orange glow of lightbulbs. Saturation tends to be fine enough, if a bit flat, while fine detail remains unremarkable even in close-ups. There's some jagged lines here and there depending on the angles and the darkness of the crowd can be pretty oppressive in terms of contrast, but for the most part the transfer makes one feel like they're present at the performance.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track has an interesting shift in clarity near the midpoint in the production, hinged on when the set design morphs from having a padded black flooring to the hardwood stage itself. In general, the volume and clarity of the line delivery remains sturdy and reputable throughout, but there's a thicker, muffled texture to the dialogue that disappears once that padding gets removed, elevating the crispness and natural heft to conversions one that happens. This also seems to help the overall dimensionality of the recording as well, as the slightly narrower presence of the sound also opens up later in the production, possessing more width and responsiveness across the front channels. Granted, these are negligible observations and hinge more on the performance's design, but it's worth noting. Otherwise, the scattered sound effects are shrug-worthy and serviceable, and the music stands out a bit more for the recording than it maybe should, but the overall theatrical presence is preserved here.
Noteworthy for its casting of Maxine Peake in the title role, this production of Hamlet by the Royal Exchange Theater turns out to be an otherwise decently-performed, peculiarly-designed rendition of William Shakespeare's iconic play that never elevates beyond the inventiveness of its lead casting. Peake's turn as the Prince of Denmark taps into shred madness and melancholy, yet also lacks the warmer interconnectedness with the other characters that often gives Hamlet a more robust identifiable side. It's a daring take on the character that I appreciate, but not an entirely successful fleshing-out of the persona, and the performances around her are just good enough to support her without strengthening the potency of the play itself. Between the scattershot production design and the ungainly photography capturing the performances and the set layout, this is a merely serviceable home viewing experience that shouldn't take priority above the likes of Gregory Dolan's decade-old production or even Kenneth Branagh's silver-screen adaptation. Rent It.