Bard enables a creative Peake

Hamlet and Ophelia

Hamlet and Ophelia

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To be or not to be a woman – that is the question that really needs no answer in this penetrating and exciting production.

The estimable Maxine Peake is just the latest in a long line of actresses to submit themselves to the intense examination of performing one of Shakespeare’s greatest challenges.

With her elfin haircut topping off an androgynous appearance, further emphasised in a shapeless suit, Peake delivers a gender-blind performance of great power and persuasion.

In truth, it is actually the one or two other character ‘sex changes’ that become more noticeable in director Sarah Frankcom’s adaptation of the text created for Jude Law’s performances five years ago.

Gillian Bevan makes an especially frosty and business-like Pollonia.

John Shrapnel is a tortured Claudius, Barbara Marten adds to her acting honours with a wavering and vulnerable Gertrude, and Michelle Butterly unabashedly steals the Yorick scene as a Scouse scally of a gravedigger.

Above all, though, this excellent production confirms that Maxine Peake’s appointment here, as an associate artist, is one in which she and the Royal Exchange undoubtedly have a lot to offer each other.

David Upton