Sarah Frankcom’s 2014 production, staged at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and now being offered in a filmed recording, is a bare-bones, modern dress, multicultural interpretation of “Hamlet” that included gender reassignment in a few key roles.
This experiment works brilliantly when Polonius becomes Polonia, creating a remarkably uncomfortable tension between Katie West’s unstrung Ophelia and Gillian Bevan as her scheming parent – the mother-daughter duel further enflames the already strained relationship. And the updating offered an imaginative sight gag when Polonia grants her departing son Laertes (played by black actor Ashley Zhangazha) with a credit card to cover the expenses of his schooling.
But the key element to this interpretation is the placement of Maxine Peake as Hamlet, and this is where the production stumbles. While visually fetching with an androgynous haircut and wardrobe, Peake looks about her surroundings with a Popeye-style scowl and spits out the text in shrill line readings that quickly become irritating. Her poor command of the role is especially obvious when confronted with John Shrapnel’s full-throttle fury as the Ghost – his gut-punch take on the role is one of the most startling captured on camera. (Shrapnel does double-duty as Claudius and he is equally innovative in that often-thankless part.)
In this filmed record, Margaret Williams captures the stage production in a crisp and efficiently shot manner, although occasionally the shadows of the audience members’ heads offer a distracting lower screen framing.
If this “Hamlet” doesn’t hit the mark, at least it deserves credit for daring to be different.