Filmed live at the Royal Exchange last autumn, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet is a bold take on Shakespeare’s most famous tale of murder and revenge. For all its grandeur, the Exchange is an intimate space and the cameras revel in their closeness to the action. It’s much more intimate than the often-distant recordings of performances at the National in London.

Sarah Frankcom’s stage direction is wonderful. The Royal Exchange always makes great use of its main space and early scenes make evocative use of lighting design, while later scenes make inventive use of a pile of old clothes. Alas poor Yorick, the middle sections of the production lack some of this imagination and, although the real stars are of course the cast, the screen version yearns for a little more dazzle.

Margaret Williams’ direction for screen captures the action well with occasional flourishes of cinematic aspiration. Occasional instances of slow motion break that sense of ‘live’ theatre, especially as the convention is not established early on. The film benefits from the lighting design of Lee Curran, which brings the screen to life.

It is hard not to feel removed from theatre once captured for screen and it takes a strong performance to bridge that disconnect. Thankfully, Peake’s energetic portrayal of the Dane is a fine display of barely contained madness. She plays the part of a man and it’s remarkable how unremarkable that feels. It’s a fine performance – captivating, poised and utterly deranged.

Of the rest of the cast, Katie West is beguiling as the rebellious and ruined Ophelia, and her own descent into madness is utterly heartbreaking. It’s a shame the production didn’t attempt to make up for poor Ophelia’s worst insult – a death off stage – when it has shown such imagination elsewhere. Gillian Bevan’s Polonia brings light relief to one of Shakespeare’s bleakest works. Her comic timing and delivery are superb and the play misses her when she is gone (surely it’s not a spoiler at this point to say almost everyone dies). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make little impact, but the cast is otherwise faultless.

For those not enamoured with Shakespeare, there is little to recommend. The play as it is filmed is solid but unlikely to win you over. But for those who missed it live or want to enjoy it again, the filmed version is a riveting production worth seeing. Hopefully it won’t be long before Hamlet is screened again as it is a fantastic showcase of some of Manchester’s finest talents in its greatest theatre space.

Directed for the stage by Sarah Frankcom
Directed for the screen by Margaret Williams

Sean Mason