I’m awfully glad that the Royal Exchange Theatre decided to record this version of Hamlet because it was, without doubt, a truly excellent production.
Firstly, Maxine Peake owned the role. She gave us a nuanced Hamlet; clever, cunning, certainly not as mad as appearance would have had everyone else believe but nevertheless one deeply affected by the unfolding events. I never for an instant questioned why Hamlet was behaving as he was (and I have with some versions) and there were moments when Maxine’s expressions gave me shivers.
The decision to gender swap Polonius worked incredibly well. Polonia was sparky, amusing, believable and the dynamic between her and both Laertes and Ophelia felt alive and real in a way very few other productions have managed. Ophelia’s descent into madness was also acted and directed incredibly well, in fact I was deeply impressed with Katie West throughout.
The staging itself – in the round, with a relatively minimal amount of props – suited the intimate way it was directed and leant an air of intimate confidences being shared during Hamlet’s soliloquies that some grander productions miss. I also applaud the decision to move “To be or not to be” from the first half and set it after Hamlet had killed Polonia. It gave a fresh urgency to words that many of us know almost by heart already.
My only criticism was that I really didn’t get the sense of the strength of the bond between Hamlet and Horatio, even in the last scene; an impression I’m certain wasn’t helped by the decision not to have Hamlet die in Horatio’s arms. I put this down to simply the way Thomas Arnold and Maxine act together but I couldn’t help but wonder whether a different choice of casting for Horatio might have added an extra dimension to the production. However that is a minor quibble in comparison to the wealth of brilliance in this staging.
If they do broadcast it again, I definitely recommend you try and get a ticket.