Maxine Peake - Breaking New Ground

PUBLISHED: 15:12 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:12 13 October 2014

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Maxine Peake is an actress who doesn’t shy away from big roles.

She may be remembered by some as Twinkle in the lovable TV comedy Dinnerladies, but she’s gone on to do meaty roles both on stage and screen: there’s her performance as Myra Hindley in the TV drama See No Evil: The Moors Murders; Veronica in Shameless and Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange. Now she’s back at the Manchester theatre where she started her acting career more than two decades ago to play Hamlet, one of the biggest challenges of them all.

Hamlet is usually performed by a man, so there’s been nationwide interest in this new take on the Shakespearean tragedy.

“We did not say we will do Hamlet and start a revolution; I hope that in 10 years time no one will question it,’ says Maxine. “What really touched me when I said I was doing this role was many actresses got in contact saying ‘Thank you for doing it for us.’ I am not naively thinking there’s going to be no expectation, I spoke to a lot of actors who said they were overwhelmed [by the role] or ones who had learnt the lines a full year before,” the 40-year-old actress says.

Both Maxine and director Sarah Frankcom - the two have collaborated heavily over the years, including staging Miss Julie at the theatre two years ago – are making much of the fact this is a Hamlet for Manchester.

“We have put a lot of Smiths songs, no I’m joking!” laughs Maxine. “We want to keep stretching ourselves and it’s about changing that view of what roles are for women and what roles are not. Sarah and I have looked for a project that would stretch and excite us and Hamlet just seemed the next natural step. I am so excited at how gender swapping can affect and throw up new ways of looking at this theatrical masterpiece. Why should it just be the preserve of men?”

“People are on our side and want something a bit different, something made in Manchester, why should London have all the fun?”

And certainly the Manchester audience is lapping it up, it’s the theatre’s most popular show in terms of ticket sales and the run has already been extended to cope with demand.

The role of Hamlet and how he exacts revenge for his father’s death is one of theatre’s most demanding roles and requires skills Maxine hasn’t used since learning them at RADA 20 years ago.

“I’ve never done a big fight,” she says, talking about the muscles she has pulled during rehearsals. “It’s like a dream come true. I get it how men get overexcited playing Hamlet!’ She’s on stage for most of the three-hour show and spent months in the run-up to the opening improving her fitness to cope with the sheer physicality of the role.

It’s also a feat of memory and, for Maxine, a chance to explore Shakespeare’s work. “I went to Salford Tech from 16 to 18 and we were always told there to not touch Shakespeare, none of us would be able to achieve it. I was frightened to death of it. I played Ophelia at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 12 years ago and probably was not that good. I have not looked at Hamlet as Shakespeare, it’s just a great part. It’s a class thing, it’s still seen as elitist. I think things are starting to break down. Sarah said it’s just words and it’s the truth of it…it’s opened up a whole world to me.”

Hamlet runs until Saturday, October 25

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