Sunday, May 29, 2016

the law of writ and the liberty: Maxine Peake's Hamlet @ the artplex HD

Maxine Peake doesn't rewrite the playbook on Hamlet, but it's a respectable effort in a big field of recent respectable efforts. Where in other productions the Ghost is the catalyzing agent that impels Hamlet down the path that ends [spoiler alert] with Horatio and Fortinbras as the last men standing, Peake's Hamlet is clearly already well down that path from the opening dinner table awkwardnesses. (Also, btw, there is no Fortinbras as they cut all of Denmark's knotty foreign relations entanglements.)

This directorial strategy has a plus side and a minus side. The minus side is it makes for a somewhat one-note main character. And as such we, the audience, miss the transformations, the steps become more of a slide. The famous indecisiveness, as addressed in Hamlet's speeches, seems less in evidence, which in turn makes those speeches less convincing. (nb: this may be precisely the point.)

On the plus side, the more like wallpaper the main character becomes, the more secondary characters stand out. This may be the first production I've ever seen where I was actually interested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters. Peake's Hamlet really has no decisions to make -- the train is never not going to the station. But what that makes evident is the collateral damage to Hamlet's "friends", actual or potential: R & G, of course, and Laertes and Ophelia, but also the Players, scattering in a panic at the termination of their performance, when they realize they've been used as pawns in a game that could turn out very badly for them. This Hamlet is one willing to throw anyone under the bus without much worrying about the consequences.

In fact as soon as the Ghost appears we are calling into question the whole enterprise: John Shrapnel plays both the Ghost and Claudius, the only difference between them is the clothes. But Hamlet is a play about appearance and sham, and masks are everywhere. The "Hyperion to a satyr" comparison Hamlet makes to Gertrude (Barbara Marten) is a visual one -- "Look here upon this picture and on this." If there is no physical difference, and the text abjures psychology, then who's to say Claudius is any worse than the brother he's usurped? And who's to say Hamlet's "revenge" has any meaning whatsoever?

Director Sarah Frankcom makes it clear to us that Rosencrantz (Jodie McNee) and Guildenstern (Peter Singh), two punk kids with accents from some other part of town, have never darkened the doors of Elsinore. Gertrude knows of them, as any mother might who makes it her business at least to know the names of her children's friends. Claudius is uncertain of their names, "Moreover that we did long to see you" becoming a bit of lip service even more patronizing than usual here. And they, unlike much smarmier versions in other productions, seem to be both genuinely concerned and leaping at the chance to hang out with a mate so often out of reach, whether off at school or mewed up behind castle walls and protocol. Unlike the Players, though, they don't quite know when to bail out, finally trapped between Claudius's "need we have to use you" and Hamlet's own somewhat sociopathic agenda.

The casting of Maxine Peake doesn't make for much in the way of a gendered understanding of the title role. Her Hamlet is androgynous, rough-voiced, trickstery, but not quite a challenge to convention. But there are interesting things happening in the margins: Rosencrantz, Marcellus and the Player King, the grave diggers, and Polonius are all explicitly gender-swapped. In the case of Rosencrantz, this means she and Hamlet have had a passing thing, which a bit ups the ante on each one's (real or perceived) betrayal of the other.

In the case of Polonius -- Polonia here -- it changes the relationship with Ophelia in the way recent gender-swapped Tempests have altered, and expanded on, the relationship between Prospero and Miranda. When Polonia (Gillian Bevan) says "I do know, when the blood burns, how prodigal the soul lends the tongue vows," you know her mind's eye is looking down the long road of her own past and seeing her daughter's likely future.

The upshot: worth seeing, full of interesting choices, but we're still waiting for an actress to really drag this role kicking and screaming out of its conventions.