DVD Review: Hamlet (2015)

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A dazed and unhinged Hamlet, Maxine Peake is nevertheless able to unleash paragraphs of dialogue with ferocious, lightning quick speed. From growls to laughter, she uses the various notes of her voice almost musically.

And as the first actress to tackle the role of Shakespeare's vengeful Danish prince since Frances La Tour took it on in 1979, Peake simply dazzles in Manchester's 2015 Royal Exchange Theatre production directed for the stage by Sarah Frankcom, which has at last made its way to DVD courtesy of Film Movement's sister label Omnibus Entertainment.

Yet considering the fact that they didn't alter the text or characterizations much to suit the casting, Hamlet's daring gender blind casting might throw you at first. However, once you settle into Frankcom's bold, minimalist, and (fittingly for its Danish setting) near Dogme '95 like staging which wouldn't have been out of place in one of Lars von Trier's late '90s era movies, it becomes not only thrilling to see women deliver some of Shakespeare's most quotable lines but also makes you reevaluate some of the work's core characters and relationships.

As the anchor of the play, Peake's performance is sure to make Shakespeare scholars recall Sarah Bernhardt's argument that Hamlet should only be played by women. Yet the decision to cast a woman in the role of Polonius makes the now mother/father and daughter tragedy of Ophelia all the more more upsetting.

A worthwhile endeavor for fellow theater buffs that translates impressively well to DVD with Margaret Williams directing it for the screen, Hamlet features a strong supporting cast, inventive staging, and fortunately only a couple of minor hiccups few and far between that don't quite live up to potential we've seen displayed in other Bard variations.

Making us feel like we're a part of the action, Hamlet sets itself apart early on during the opening scene where palace guards in neon vests hunt for any sign of Hamlet's father's ghost. Reminding us of the same feeling later on in the production when multiple characters simply stand around and watch Hamlet and Ophelia go mad without doing a thing, in the hands of Frankcom, bearing witness becomes a recurring, emphasized theme, thus giving the 1603 play greater urgency in today's violent world.

Ensuring that everything from Peake's David Bowie meets Billy Idol clothing and hairstyle to the wailing, dissonant jazz that plays between scenes during set-ups serves to punctuate the material even more, in this angry punk rock production of Hamlet, Frankcom and company take Polonius' advice of “to thine own self be true” to heart.

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