At her Peake: Maxine’s Manchester Hamlet – and her career in pictures

As Maxine Peake plays Shakespeare’s ‘sweet prince’ in one of 2014’s most anticipated productions, take a look at the Silk star’s stage career so far

Follow the link to the gallery here.

Review: Maxine Peake as Hamlet, at the Royal Exchange Manchester

It’s the holy grail, Hamlet made fresh and distinct and specific and alive. You read it on every interview and every programme. Except how do you do that? Director Sarah Frankcom and company at the Royal Exchange Manchester found the way to a version of the play that – while it doesn’t do everything the play can do – is fearless, personal and closer to the heart than possibly any other Hamlet I have seen. It shakes the play’s heaviness and with immense confidence creates a world where ideas have an exhilarating quality and a whole layer of skin and grime has been scraped.

Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a cross between a warrior angel (one of the beautiful lovelorn angels Philip Pullman writes) and the Little Prince. Unselfconsciously wise, relentless in gouging the truth out of everything, occasionally scary, earthy and alien, warm and mischievous and never more himself than when he laughs. While his insanity is not entirely an act, he is unperturbed by it. He knows something beyond the obvious. He is trapped at the beginning of the play, he finds a mission and a way out when he meets the Ghost, and goes home at the end of it. Peake is scorchingly good, above all in her ability to connect and hold the world at the palm of her hand: this Hamlet could raise an army if he wanted, and we are it.

Taking a cue from the lead, the production embraces the open-hearted humanity of the play. Half a dozen scenes become instant classics: the meeting of Hamlet and the Ghost is a scene of immense beauty, as if all the love between father and son has been turned inside out. The players (that include young actors from the Royal Exchange Young Company) introduce a world of innocent contradictions, to the point that the play within the play becomes a pivotal moment and a door to a new world. The graveside scene is brilliantly staged, allowing for an imaginative reading of the mortality theme. Special mention for designer Amanda Stoodley who creates a raggedy tactile world that never feels cheap.

The rest of the cast adds their particular kind of magic: John Schrapnel is a Ghost of controlled but infinite despair, as commanding as he is moving. By contrast his Claudius is coldly calculating, even in remorse. Barbara Marten subtly suggests Gertrude’s struggle, even at her husband’s side. Gillian Bevan’s Polonia embraces the machiavellian machinations of the court with such energy and richness you almost forgive the “mommie dearest” relationship with Ophelia. Thomas Arnold’s Horatio is brilliantly understated but always present and fierce in his warm relationship with Hamlet. Katie West’s Ophelia finds a streak of rebellion before life and courage and sanity are squashed out of her. Jodie McNee’s Rosencrantz manages the contradiction of a punky exterior and a corporate heart. Ben Stott makes his mark with a touching Player Queen and a subtly supercilious Osric. Claire Benedict’s Player King effortlessly carries the truth of human experience that the players represent. And last but not least, the young actors of the company more than rise to the occasion and show everyone how it is done.

The production does away with all political references. No matter. With such an immediate all-encompassing version of the play, anything left out feels inconsequential. It’s not a definitive production of the play – because such thing doesn’t exist. But it is as rich and as vital as any Hamlet production I have seen.

As with most of my Shakespeare reviews, below is the SPOILER section (specific observations about the production that you shouldn’t read before you see it).

– To Be or Not To Be makes a very late appearance, immediately after the closet scene and Polonia’s death. Somehow, that takes the suicidal sting out of it – we just had a murder and mortality is about the death of others. That approach is a good fit for this Hamlet who is never morose or depressed.

– Laertes reunites with Ophelia in her madness and is part of her rosemary scene (where some of Claudius’ lines are given to Laertes).

– When I started playing around with the idea that Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is – at least in part – the Little Prince, it all felt like a leap of faith. Then I read the passage when the Little Prince dies: “He remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a tree falls”. There is no better description for this Hamlet’s death.

– Hamlet is reading Machiavelli’s The Prince.

– David Bowie has a marvellous year in the theatre: after Starman being the moment of reckoning in My Night With Reg, his Lady Grinning Soul is the song the players sing as they make their entrance for the play within the play. It’s an eery, intoxicating rendition, that combined with the child actors doing the dumb show immediately afterwards turns the scene into a profound and unexpectedly moving moment, a portal to another world.

– The graveside is created by armful of clothes being dropped from above and then rearranged to create the hole of the grave. Among the items, sweaters are folded to the size and the vague appearance of skulls. One of them is Yorick, who is hugged and handled in a way that wouldn’t be possible with a real skull. The chill of death is absent but again, consistency of vision is preserved, this is not a Hamlet who was scared of death in the first place.

– Rosencrantz offers Hamlet cocaine. Hamlet doesn’t take it.

– When Gertrude – unbeknownst to her – drinks the poison and approaches Hamlet with the line “Let me wipe thy face”, mother and son have a final tender moment. In the 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Penny Downie’s Gertrude knowingly drinks the poison and then tries to wipe her son’s face. David Tennant’s Hamlet, flushed by the heat of the fight, pulls away, never giving them a final moment together.

Curtain call watch: Maxine Peake taking her solo curtain call was a joyous moment, not only because the audience was appropriately enthusiastic and she looked happy (as she should be) but also because she had a brief moment of confusion and mirth when she forgot which sides she had taken a bow to.


Hamlet Undressed on BBC Radio 4 – 28 September

Maxine Peake goes behind the scenes of Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Listeners will follow Maxine on her journey as she takes on Shakespeare’s greatest character.

This autumn, the Royal Exchange Theatre is staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This programme documents Maxine’s journey as she prepares to play the part of Hamlet, which sees her reunited with Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom, a year after their hugely successful version of Shelley’s The Masque Of Anarchy at the Manchester International Festival.

From research meetings to vocal sessions, from sword fight training to character preparation, listeners hear from the director, the designer and other creatives about how they go about putting their unique stamp on the play, and create a Hamlet for Manchester, a Hamlet for now.

Presenter/ Maxine Peake, Producer / Elizabeth Foster for the BBC

When? Sunday 28 September, 1.30pm-2.00pm on BBC RADIO 4


Podcast: Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at Royal Exchange

Listen to the podcast below (Maxine’s interview is right at the beginning):

The hottest tickets for 2014’s autumn theatre season in Manchester are productions of Shakespeare from two of the region’s leading theatre companies.

The Royal Exchange Theatre production of Hamlet is directed by artistic director Sarah Frankcom starring popular stage and TV actress Maxine Peake in the title role. When we spoke to Sarah and Maxine with two and a half weeks to go before opening, this had already become one of the theatre’s most popular productions.

Hamlet runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester from 11 September to 25 October 2014. For more information, see


Theatre: plays and musicals to watch out for in autumn 2014

Highlights of the coming season include Maxine Peake as Hamlet, Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, Lindsay Lohan in a Mamet satire, the shocking installation piece Exhibit B and a fresh take on Treasure Island


As powerful on stage as she is popular on TV, Maxine Peake will become one of the few women ever to tackle Shakespeare’s longest role. She’s reunited with director Sarah Frankcom, who steered her in the 2013 Manchester International Festival hit The Masque of Anarchy. Few female actors get the chance to play the role which Max Beerbohm described as “the hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump”. Peake is unlikely to disappoint. LG

Royal Exchange, Manchester, from 11 September


Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is just another arrow in Manchester’s cultural quiver

It will be a big night on Thursday when Maxine Peake starts her new job as an associate artist at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Not that the audience will be bothered about her status there. She is a star, and in Manchester and environs she’s a Vega, born, bred and still living in the area. The play is Hamlet, which she has been in before, as Ophelia at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 12 years ago. But this time, and this is the reason why the nation will be taking notice, she’s Hamlet.

It’s not the first time a woman has played the prince, Sarah Siddons did it a couple of centuries ago and Frances de la Tour had a go in the 1970s, but it’s not your traditional breeches role, and this will be a sensation that will do the Royal’s box office no harm at all.

More than that, though, it adds to the growing cultural ecology that Manchester has been building for itself, never mind what happens elsewhere in the UK, least of all London. Tourists are pouring into the city at, according to the latest 2012 figures, a rate of 105 million a year, 10 million of them staying overnight. That year they spent £6.6 billion in the city and, along with football, you imagine the lion’s share of that money is attracted by the arts culture.

The biennial Manchester International Festival, seven years old with its fifth iteration coming next summer, is itself worth £38 million. The music industry alone creates 24,000 jobs a year. In November the new Whitworth Art Gallery opens, transformed to welcome the park it has turned its back on for 130 years.

And while the subsidised sector is burgeoning against the national trend, across in neighbouring Salford – what Ewan MacColl bemoaned as a Dirty Old Town in 1949 – the Lowry arts centre that opened 14 years ago at a cost of £106 million was facing closure within a couple of years. The Heritage Lottery Fund and a whole cultural rethink – which involved working with the community that surrounded the place rather than the invisible international audience it was built for – had to come to the rescue, and now the Lowry, which earns 85% of its income now, is getting 820,000 visitors a year. In July, the Lowry attracted its biggest private donation – £1 million – towards its next development programme. And across the Manchester Ship Canal is, of course, MediaCityUK, home to the BBC, among others.

Behind all this is the local authority and characteristic Manchester pragmatism that had recognised that the post-industrial car crash whose only cultural contribution to the rest of the country was Coronation Street was a creative bomb just waiting to be detonated. Manchester City Council did it by putting money into the arts but also by making the movers and shakers sit together, talk and share plans. And it’s why Peake’s Hamlet is being talked about by the city’s musicians, museum curators and dancers. They’re proud of every new artistic thing that comes along.

Hamlet won’t be the biggest event of the year in Manchester. Just the latest.


Video Update: Maxine Peake speech after presentation of the annual Wigan Diggers Award on 7 September

Maxine Peake receiving the Wigan Diggers Festival Award 07/09/14. Maxine: “this is better than any Oscar or any BAFTA…”

Also, take a look at the photos from the ceremony I’ve added.

Maxine Peake wins Wigan Diggers Spade – and says it means more than an Oscar


Salford based Maxine Peake has received this year’s Gerrard Winstanley Spade Award from the Wigan Diggers Festival for her “outstanding contribution to socialism”. Maxine responded that “This award means more to me than any Oscar or BAFTA”.

The Wigan Diggers Festival – which happens next Saturday – is a top free open air event featuring loads of stalls, children’s entertainment, a beer tent and over a dozen musicians. It commemorates Wigan-born legend, Gerrard Winstanley, who led the 17th Century `Diggers’ movement, described by Tony Benn as the “the first true socialists”. The much coveted Spade is Wigan’s `own version of an Oscar’


Also, check out the other photos which were taken today here.

Gallery Update: Marie Claire UK Magazine (Oct 2014) Scan added

Just a quick Saturday evening update as I’ve added a scan from the October issue of the UK magazine ‘Marie Claire‘.

Thanks Chuckie from his Rupert Evans Fan Website for the heads-up! :)

Gallery Link:
Scans > 2014 > October | Marie Claire UK

Maxine Peake: class, infertility and playing Hamlet

Enjoy Maxine’s full interview with ‘The Times‘ as I’ve posted the whole article below.
Big thanks to Catherine for emailing me! :)

She’s the northern, working-class actress known for her tough, earthy roles in Silk and The Village. Now she’s playing a man-Hamlet. The actress Maxine Peake talks to Janice Turner about dealing with childlessness, anger and prejudice

To be or not to be? If a woman plays Hamlet, should she pretend to be a man or make the role female? Is she then in a lesbian relationship with Ophelia? If this woman-Hamlet is born in Bolton, must she soliloquise Olivier-like in received pronunciation or, given the Dane was born even further north, could she keep her vowels flat? That is the question.

When Maxine Peake, high on an acclaimed Miss Julie, declared she’d like to tackle Hamlet, she didn’t anticipate a battery of dilemmas worthy of Shakespeare’s tortured prince. Her Hamlet, she says, is “born a woman and has decided to take on the mantle of a man”. As we talk in her lunch break from rehearsals, she refers to her character interchangeably as “he” or “she”. She looks dashing and androgynous, her hair dyed blonde, cropped and quiffed into mid-period Bowie. “We’ve reimagined Wittenberg, where Hamlet studied,” she says, “as Eighties Berlin or New York Greenwich Village.”

But even as this intriguing production takes shape at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican has sold out quicker than Beyoncé. Is Peake not intimidated by Sherlock’s shadow? “I would be apoplectic if I was male doing it now,” she says. “I don’t think I’d do it if I was a man. But I feel slightly safer that I’m doing it in Manchester and am a woman … Of course, there’s a pressure, and it’s a ridiculously difficult part, but I’m having a great time, and if we fail miserably, we fail miserably. It’s about having a go.”

Peake is sharp, fast-talking, her accent, which she refused to lose at drama school, a strong, chewy Lancashire. She is plain-speaking, fond of bashing down actorly luvvy-isms — “There’s still that stigma that you have to be intellectual to be an actor, and that’s b******s” — and there is something about her delicate features, combined with a decisive set of the jaw, that makes her so believable as characters who are tough yet not hard: Martha, the ambitious barrister in Silk, or Grace Middleton, the stoic mother in The Village, who loses her son in the First World War.

Of Hamlet, she says: “I feel like I have nothing to lose.” But then her career has been fuelled by the belly-fire of an underestimated working-class kid. All through her childhood, this daughter of a care worker and a lorry driver was told she was thick. She still burns at the ignominy of being held down a year at infant school, defiantly reading every book she could find to win a prize. “From being very young, I’ve had this need to show people,” she says.

Later, when her Bolton school judged her too dim for A levels (“All I was allowed to do was an AS in communication studies”), she moved to a sixth-form college to take theatre studies and English. But even then, her horizons were set low. “The only drama we did at secondary school was, ‘OK, here’s the scenario: there’s a dolphin, a washing machine and a cat. Go and improvise.’ We were never given a text,” she says. “Even at Salford [University], we were told, ‘Do not touch Shakespeare.’ ”

Why not? “Because it was too difficult for us? I don’t know. We were just told to leave it alone. Every month we had to do a song, a verse and a dance. Me and my friend hated dancing. We hired gorilla suits and did the Goodies’ Funky Gibbon.” And now here you are playing Hamlet. “Yeah, and with this part, and a lot of things I take on now, I go, ‘I wasn’t supposed to get this far. So why not?’ ”

At 21, Peake won a place at Rada, and the Patricia Rothermere Scholarship, which paid the fees she couldn’t otherwise afford. To her surprise, she wasn’t the only northerner there, but there weren’t many. “People are going, ‘Ooh, all of a sudden there’s all these Etonian boys taking over,’ because there’s a few who are now Hollywood film stars [Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Tom Hiddleston]. And you go, ‘But it’s always been that way.’ It’s terrible. If you’re working class, you’ve never been able to go to drama school.” Peake was amazed to find Oxbridge graduates at Rada. “I’d think, ‘Your parents must be really disappointed. All that money spent on your education and you want to be an actor?’ ”

She laughs. The toughest lesson, the one that takes decades to learn, was confidence, especially when tackling high culture. In her only other Shakespeare role, playing Ophelia opposite Christopher Ecclestone’s Hamlet, “Chris would talk about that fear from your background that is bred into you. This stuff isn’t for you, unless you’re playing a lowly maid or a drunk or something.”

I’m reminded of interviewing Melvyn Bragg recently. He said he was weary of the “grim oop north” stereotypes of TV drama, which imbue working-class characters with no intellect or subtlety. Peake agrees. “Yes, and then I get slightly annoyed by the ‘honourable’ working class,” she says. “You know, ‘They’re just trying their hardest.’ There’s more to it than that; it’s very black and white.”

After Rada, her first break was in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies. Peake was, at this time, a big woman. It is hard to imagine her now as 15 stone, with a pudding-bowl haircut. But as a teenager she played rugby league for Wigan Ladies. Her male trainer always remarked that the female players were more vicious. “Because it’s holding grudges. If you did a high tackle on somebody then they’d come back and get you.”

Peake carried that physical heft into Rada, where she was constantly advised to lose weight. “I remember a teacher saying to me, ‘If you don’t lay off the chips, you’ll never play Juliet.’ I went, ‘I don’t want to play Juliet. She’s a wimp.’ ” In the Rada canteen, “It was just me and the boys eating. The girls would just nibble through this tiny pot of hummus, which I’d never even come across until I went to drama school.” She realised these girls had eating disorders. The pressure to look good and thus find parts, intensified in their third year as they readied themselves for the mortification of casting calls.

Peake, defiant as ever, refused to care about her size until Victoria Wood sat her down and told her how she was limiting her future. “She just went, ‘Look, you’re big, you’re blonde, you’re northern. It’s going to be difficult.’ And there was a woman who, she’s not big now, but at one point was big, blonde and northern. You’re listening to someone who has been through it.” Peake joined Weight Watchers and lost 5 stone and has remained her current size 12 ever since. She jokes that the parts she was chosen for went from characters described as “fat” to “healthy looking”.

Her breakthrough was as Veronica in Shameless, where in one infamous scene her character ironed topless while working as a sex-phone operator. Her family, she said, did not relish her taking this role. When she heard that a miniseries of Myra Hindley’s life, See No Evil, was being made, she badgered producers. “It was just an urge that it was something I wanted to tackle,” she says. “I wanted to have a go at this. So there was lots of me pushing agents and begging for an audition. Initially, because of Shameless perhaps, they were like, ‘No, thank you.’ ” Although the series had mixed reviews, Peake’s nervy depiction of the child murderer took her from what she calls “gobby, mad northerner parts” to reveal her formidable talent.

Her own family, she says, is full of strong characters with unrecognised gifts. When her parents divorced and her mother moved in with a new partner, Peake lived with her selfeducated, passionately socialist stepgrandfather for six years. He worked at Leyland Motors and, despite his intelligence, had no ambition to “better” himself. He influenced Peake’s own political beliefs. Aged 18, she joined the Communist party. Her membership has long since lapsed, but she is still well left of Labour, performs at benefits, signs petitions for Palestinians and has just made a radio drama about the women of the miners’ strike, in which she played Anne Scargill.

Peake’s late mother could draw beautifully, always dressed well and had an eye for decorating her home. Only when Peake was in her teens, did she confide her dreams of going to art school. Instead, she’d married young and was pregnant with Peake’s sister at 21. She told both her daughters to leave having children as long as possible. “She was like, ‘Ooh, enjoy yourself! What do you want to settle down and be in a relationship for?’ ” When she was dying of cancer, she told Peake she was upset that she would never see her grandchildren.

“And I did laugh and say, ‘Mother, the way you brought us up, you could live to 100 and never see any.’ ” Neither she nor her sister, a police officer, has children. “Sometimes, when a relationship didn’t work out, I’d wonder if it was because of what mum said or, you know, witnessing our parents.”

For years Peake dated actors, had several long-term boyfriends, but things never worked out. Her desire to be independent, to take off when she liked without explanation was too strong. But ten years ago, she met Paw (pronounced Pav), a TV art director of Ukrainian descent. “I was just so adamant about having my freedom, you know, not being defined by a relationship, so Paw just went, ‘Go on, then. Sort your stuff out and, when you’re ready, give us a ring.’ ”

Paw, she says, tells her to take jobs she loves, even if it means monthslong absences and being so in demand that she hasn’t had a holiday for five years. It was Paw who came across a biography of Beryl Burton, a Yorkshire woman who dominated 1960s cycling, and even held the record for the men’s 12-hour time trial for two years. Peake turned the story of Burton and her husband Charlie, who, like Paw, loyally supported her career, into a stage and radio play.

Feeling defeated by the gazumping, ever-soaring London property market, Peake moved back north. She lives in Salford now, feels at home here – “It’s not pretentious, it’s affordable; we have a nice little community and our café called Big Baps” — and, as associate artist at the Royal Exchange, is passionate that regional theatre should be risk-taking and bold.

After years of TV and film drama failing to offer meaty parts for women, she senses a tipping point. “A lot of the dramas now are female-led,” she says. “You’ve got Scott & Bailey, In the Club, Call the Midwife, The Crimson Field, all those …” But she abhors dramas littered with sexified women’s corpses. “Unfortunately, in telly, if someone is going to get murdered, it’s going to be a woman. I mean, however brilliant Southcliffe was, it never explained to me why only women got shot.” The Fall, she says bluntly, “is pornography. I know I shouldn’t say it, but it is.”

She is honest that she’d relish a bash at Hollywood, but can’t face starting again, getting tiny parts when now she commands leads. “I’d love to just go and have a good old nosey and see what all the fuss is about,” she says. “But when I was growing up it wasn’t about America for me. What interested me was home-grown talent. Actresses like Julie Walters, Glenda Jackson, Margaret Rutherford. I wanted to be in the British films, the Sixties kitchen-sink dramas. Now, though, there are lots of independent British films.”

Only recently did Peake reveal that she and Paw had been trying to have children for several years. She twice undertook IVF and had several miscarriages. She decided to be honest because she believes the strain of fertility treatment is not well appreciated. Her second round of IVF was during the filming of The Village. “I’d had a day off agreed months in advance,” she says. “But even so, people were asking if I really had to do it, like I was a colossal pain.” The hormones she had to take “put me in such a rage that I locked myself away in my trailer. I was terrified I’d explode and say something I’d regret later.”

Since going public about her treatment, several female friends have thanked her for taking the shame out of infertility. “I find that horrifying,” she says. “But they felt failures as women just because certain bits of their bodies didn’t work.” Now 40, she and Paw are exploring adoption. “It might involve rethinking things, because I’m away so much,” she says. “But being so close to my stepgrandad, I know that relationships with people unrelated by blood can be very strong.”

Given the modern cult of parenting, it must be a particularly tough time to be childless. “Yes,” she says. “And discipline of kids seems non-existent. I worry we’re going to find ourselves with a generation of messed-up and spoilt young people.” An actor friend announced to her he was too selfish to have children “And I said, ‘No, you’re wrong. Having children is very selfish. There is a vanity and selfishness in some respects in believing you must continue your genes and blood line.”

Since Peake and her sister nursed their mother in her final illness and Paw, an only child, tended to both his late parents, she’s begun to wonder if it might be less selfish not to have children. “It made me think I wouldn’t want to have my kids looking after me like that.”

Anyway, she says, she is determined that her life will not be diminished. “Paw loves kids and we’ve had a go. But it hasn’t worked. That is the case for many people. It is maddening, really, that women have these biological clocks, that just when they’re getting used to one stage, they must go on to the next. I am so much more creative and brave than when I was a teenager. In my forties I have this fearlessness to keep exploring. I don’t mind rolling around on the floor any more looking a fool.”

Hamlet is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, from Sept 11.


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