Hamlet at the Royal Exchange


I’m a bit late getting round to writing this up, but a couple of weeks ago we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange – Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays. I’ve never seen a production of the play before and only had a sketchy knowledge of the plot as it wasn’t one of our set plays when I was a school. I knew that Hamlet was the Prince of Denmark, but the Royal Exchange had well known local actress Maxine Peake playing the lead role. She played the part as a man, though. However there were a few gender changes in the cast – Ophelia’s father had become her mother, one half of Rosencratz and Guildersterm was female as were the two gravediggers. These changes, increasing the number of female roles, didn’t seem to affect the story although, so I’ve been told, there were some omissions from the story with no mention of the war with Norway and Fortinbras, the King of Norway didn’t appear at the end to claim the crown when (spoiler alert!!!!) all the main characters had killed each other (or themselves). The latter was no surprise really, it was a Shakespeare tragedy after all.

The production is pretty much a sell out. We couldn’t get the tickets we wanted for a Saturday, our usual night for the theatre, so we had to settle for Tuesday night which meant going over to Manchester straight from work. I got something to eat before the play and as it was a long production I had a dash to the car park to make sure I was able to pay the discounted price –it goes back to the normal exorbitant cost after 5 hours. I made it with a few minutes to spare and would have been quite annoyed if I had to missed the deadline by just a few minutes. The charge would have more than doubled from the £5 discounted cost for theatregoers.

As usual a great production with an excellent cast. Barbara Marten, who was recently on TV in The Mill as Gertrude, John Shrapnel as Claudius were particularly strong. But the star was Maxine Peake. It’s not the first time a woman has played Hamlet – that honour probably goes to Sarah Bernhardt. But Maxine put her own stamp on the role. She played it as a man,nt a woman, and came across as a very convincing young man. Mad as a hatter, I thought, but was he?

Around the World in 2 hours

On Saturday we went to see the latest production at the Royal exchange in Manchester – a new adaption of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a favourite book of mine when I was young having read it when I was about 10 years old ( a very long time ago).


I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it turned out to be an excellent evening’s entertainment. The rest of the Royal Exchange’s recent season have been more mainstream plays, but this was a boisterous, light hearted production  with lots of mime, slapstick, acrobatics and at several points, they even managed to involve members of the audience. It was rather like a summer time pantomime at times. It was performed at a frantic pace by a small cast of only 8 who played over 200 parts whizzing us around the world in a tad over 2 hours. With minimal props they managed to convincingly portray various modes of travel by train, ship, wind powered sled and even an elephant.

All the cast were good. Michael Hugo was marvellous as Passepartout. Dennis Hardman an oily Inspector Fix and Andrew Pollard a tongue in cheek Phileas Fogg. 

Orpheus Descending at the Royal Exchange

On Saturday night we travelled over to Manchester to watch the latest production at the Royal ExchangeOrpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams. It’s one of his lesser known plays, first staged in 1957. It’s essentially a rewrite of an earlier play, Battle of Angels, from 1940.

Typically for Tennessee Williams the play is set in a small town in the Deep South of the USA, characterised by sexual frustration, narrow mindedness, xenophobia and racism. The action takes place inside a general store owned by Jabe Torrance and his wife, Lady, the daughter of an Italian immigrant murdered by a gang of local men (Klansmen?)  for serving wine to black men.

The plot essentially transfers the Greek myth of Orpheus to the Deep South. Lady is trapped in a loveless marriage with the seriously ill Jabe (who, unknown to her, was implicated in the murder of her father). And then, one stormy night, a young musician, Val arrives. A relationship develops, but, as we might expect, it all ends in tragedy.

There was a large cast, with the majority of the roles for women. However, most were minor parts, with some of them only appearing for a relatively short while. I’m sure more could have done to achieve more effective interaction between the different characters. As it was the play was essentially a two hander with a large number of supporting parts. But that was the fault of the playwright rather than the Royal Exchange.

So most of the cast didn’t have much opportunity to shine.  But one who did was Imogen Stubbs playing the lead role of Lady. She was nothing short of magnificent. The part could easily have been played melodramatically and over the top, but not by Imogen Stubbs, who made Lady a believable, complex character. She came across as strong, yet tragic; hard, but tender; trapped, but capable of plotting her escape.

There were strong performances too by  Jodie McNee as Carol Cutrere and  Mark Lewis as Lady’s husband, Jabe. Carol was an outcast, a wild woman. A Cassandra character predicting tragedy who was ignored (Tennessee Williams mixing up his Greek myths here!). Jabe wasn’t on stage for much of the play. A brief appearance during the Second Act returning from hospital in Memphis and then spending most of the play offstage, invalided in bed, but then returning in the last Act with a bang.

So, all in all, not one of Tennessee Williams’ strongest plays, but a good production, made special by the performance of Imogen Stubbs.


Pictures from the Royal Exchange Flickr site

“Miss Julie” at the Royal exchange

Photo from Royal Exchange Flickr page – click picture for slideshow

We went to see the Royal exchange’s production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”, a new translation by the playwright David Eldridge, on Tuesday. It was coming towards the end of its run but it had had some very good reviews so we wanted to catch it before it finished. We hadn’t been to the theatre for a while, so it was a good treat.

The plot is summed up on the Royal Exchange’s website

Sweden, 1894. Midsummer night’s celebrations are in full swing but the Count’s daughter, the beautiful and imperious Miss Julie, feels trapped and alone. Downstairs in the servants’ kitchen, handsome and rebellious footman Jean is feeling restless. When they meet a passion is ignited that soon spirals out of control. Strindberg’s masterpiece caused a scandal when first produced – and has been hugely popular ever since – for its searingly honest portrait of the class system and human sexuality.

There’s been a revival in interest in “upstairs, downstairs” dram on the TV with two series of Downton Abbey and a revival of Upstairs Downstairs on the BBC. Although these series have been very popular I’ve found them unrealistic. Although I enjoyed much of the first series of Downton, mainly due to the excellent acting, I thought the storylines started to get rather silly towards the end of it’s run and never bothered watching the second series.

Miss Julie paints quite a different picture of relationships between the classes and sexes in 19th Century Sweden. At the beginning Miss Julie very much has the upper hand as would be expected. She’s the aristocrat and Jean is a household servant. Of course, this is a reversal of the usual relationship between the sexes in that period, where the woman is subservient to the man. Class trumps sex. However, very quickly the tables are turned and by the end of the play the servant is very much in control. From a socialist perspective the situation is ambiguous though. It’s good to see the worker on top, but, on the other hand, the man’s treatment and subsequent domination of the woman is disconcerting to say the least.

The play is, effectively, a three hander. There are three roles – Miss Julie, played by Maxine Peake, Jean, the valet and his fiancé, the cook, Kristen. There was no interval and the two main actors were on stage for almost all of the 100 minutes duration. They must have been exhausted by the end, particularly given the very intense nature of the play.

All three actors were very good. And I thought Maxine Peake was magnificent. She really got across the character. Dominant at the beginning, broken, confused and subservient by the end.  And I’d have to agree with Jean’s comment early in the play – Miss Julie was a very handsome woman.

Blithe Spirit at the Royal Exchange

Last Saturday we went to see the production of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

This was the third Coward play we’d seen at the Royal Exchange. I didn’t really enjoy the first one – “the Vortex” about 3 years ago, which included Will Young in the cast. There was too much mincing around and luvvy duvvying for me, and I thought the plot was weak – particularly the ending. So I wasn’t particularly looking forward to “Hay Fever” in the summer of 2008, but I went along as we had a season ticket. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise, which would have been a pity as I thoroughly enjoyed  this production. The play was funny, the cast was excellent and it was well produced. As a result I was quite keen to see “Blithe Spirit”.

The play was written by Coward in 1941 while he was staying at Portmeirion in  “the Fountain”. We stayed next door in “the Anchor” during our short break there last year. It also had its début in Manchester in 1941 in a production directed by Coward himself. So I guess we felt some connection with the play.

I enjoyed the play, although perhaps not as much as “Hay Fever”.  As usual with the Royal Exchange, it was a good production and a good cast. The main comic character, Madame Areati, was played by Annette Badland – one of the Slitheen from Doctor Who – who was excellent. She was quite tiny (smaller than I expected) but gave a big performance, with good timing and an element of slapstick.

Suranne Jones was good as the rather posh Ruth. I’ve seen her on TV several times and she usually speaks with  a distinct Lancashire twang, so it was unusual to hear her speaking in  a “refined” accent.

Nelly Harker played Elvira in a less “etheral” way than the part is usually performed. Initially, until the “pranks” started, you wouldn’t have realised she was a ghost. She was made up a little pale, but her manner was’t much different from the other “living” characters, although her “flapper” dress was probably meant to indicate that she was from a slightly earlier period than the year when the play was set.

Like the other Coward plays we’d seen, “Blithe Spirit” started quite slowly. He seems to need to spend a few scenes establishing the background and the characters before the plot – and the comedy – get going. The latter really only developed fully during the second half of the play.

Widowers’ Houses at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Widowers’ Houses at the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Went to see this play by George bernard Shaw at the Royal exchange last night. I’ve never seen a play by GBS before and had never heard of this one. I gues, like most people, I associate him with Pygmalion, Major Barbara and Saint Joan. In fact, I’ve never seen a GBS play  before – certainly not live.

The production was, as usual with the Royal Exchange, excellent and well acted. The lead was played by Roger Lloyd Pack, better known as “Trigger” from Only Fools and Horses and “Owen” from the Vicar of Dibley.

It started as a “boy meets girl” story but the underlying theme was about how wealth is aquired and how even those capitalists with liberal leanings are caught up in the web of exploitation.