AS she prepares to take on the iconic title role of Hamlet, Maxine Peake admits she was “frightened to death” of performing Shakespeare’s work for a long time.
Now the Bolton-born stage and screen star is relishing getting her teeth into the part, in the ultimate play about murder and madness, at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.
The former pupil at Westhoughton High School said: “I remember going to Salford Tech, aged 16 to 18, and we used to have to do a speech, a dance and a song every couple of months and we were told, do not touch Shakespeare — none of you will be able to achieve it.
“So it was the thing that I was frightened to death of. And even at drama school, one thing I felt was slightly lacking at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) was that we didn’t do enough Shakespeare. In my third year, I never did a production so I was petrified of it.
“I played Ophelia at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 12 years ago and, yeah, I probably wasn’t that great.
“But I’ve not looked at Hamlet like it’s Shakespeare — it’s just a great play and a great part.
“There needs to be a sea change in the way people think about Shakespeare but I do think it’s a class thing.
“It’s still seen, in some respects, as elitist.
“I think things are starting to break down but, I was frightened to death of it for a long time.”
The 40-year-old, known for screen roles on shows including The Village, Silk, Shameless and Dinnerladies, is back working with the theatre’s joint artistic director Sarah Frankcom, following on from Miss Julie in 2012 and last year’s The Masque of Anarchy.
Speaking of tackling the role, previously played by actors including Sir Kenneth Branagh, Richard Burton and David Tennant, Maxine added: “It’s a he. We’re calling it a he but it is a she.
“I think it stemmed from after we’d done Miss Julie and we said, right, what’s next?
“I think we felt we just wanted to keep stretching ourselves. What next is a big challenge?
“And sitting down and looking at those big female roles, a lot of them had just been done so that’s not going to work.
“And it’s quite difficult because there’s not that many that stretch you like this role so why not?
“Men do it. There’s loads of all-male companies bobbing about, as if they’ve not got enough roles as it is.”
Hamlet will also see Maxine use skills not usually called upon for female actors, such as appearing in a fight scene with Ashley Zhangazha, who plays Laertes.
She said: “It’s proper full on. It’s a bit like a dream come true. I’m on stage and I’m doing a sword-fight and then I’m punching him in the head.
“You sort of go, yeah I get now why men get very over-excited about playing Hamlet because you do everything. Every emotional base is covered, physically. It is the ultimate part to play.”
Hamlet is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre from Thursday, September 11, to Saturday, October 18.
TV CAREER OF MAXINE PEAKE
Maxine Peake has appeared in a number of television and stage productions including Channel 4’s Shameless, Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies and Craig Cash’s Early Doors.
In 2006, she portrayed the Moors murderer Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders.
The year after, she played Tracey Temple in the TV drama Confessions of a Diary Secretary, which told the story of John Prescott’s affair with his secretary.
January 2009 saw her appear in her first major feature film role, as Angela in the film Clubbed, and in the Channel 4 trilogy Red Riding.
In 2010 she played the lead character in The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.
A year later she again took the lead role of barrister Martha Costello in the BBC’s legal drama, Silk.
She starred alongside John Simm in the BBC drama The Village, depicting life in a Derbyshire village during World War I.
The 40-year-old was nominated for a BAFTA in the leading actress category for her performance.
The second series of The Village, set in the 1920s, is on TV now.