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Maxine Peake: How Hamlet taught me to conquer my fears and the naysayers

Maxine Peake in Hamlet. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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In this extract from the essay Strength Thy Name Is a Working-Class Woman by Maxine Peake, she reveals how playing Hamlet in 2014 taught her to trust herself and ignore the negative chorus

The first comment to be made is that I refer to myself as an actress. I am proud to be placed under a feminine label. It is my belief (and I’m sure yours) that in acting, as in most professions, males have always had an easier ride. In acting, simply put, more parts are written for men, especially white, middle-class men. There are more men at the helm, creating a stranglehold over female stories and the way those narratives are told. I suppose the acting profession starkly reflects society in all its manifestations.

Recently, there has been a rise in heritage and period dramas, which evoke some proud and heroic past of the British ruling class. Although most of us know this nostalgia for past glory offers a vastly warped version of our history, it sells shows across the Atlantic. However, it also helps to bolster right-wing nationalism.

The book cover for Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen
The book cover for Smashing It: Working Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen

I digress. My point is that I don’t want the struggle that women, or any other under-represented group, have encountered to forge a career and, more importantly, a platform for their voices to be heard to disappear. Each of us and our struggles are unique. For us to all be lumped under one very large, anonymous umbrella undermines us.

So, when discussing with Sarah Frankcom, a theatre director and close collaborator of mine, what our next endeavour together should be [in 2013], we came upon the idea of staging a Shakespeare play. It initially started as a light-hearted suggestion. After an unexpectedly successful production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, we sat down over a cuppa. After struggling to find a female character that we both loved and who hadn’t been on our stages recently, I threw Hamlet into the mix.

At first Sarah dismissed it. She hadn’t directed a Shakespeare play before and the only Shakespeare part I’d ever played was Ophelia, more than 10 years previously. This lack of experience made us nervous and it left us wide open for criticism. We were feeling somewhat underqualified. Would we have felt different if we were male and from a more privileged background? Most probably. We finished our cuppas and went our separate ways, the next venture unresolved.

Sarah then called two weeks later to ask if I was serious. I’m never serious, but that’s actually what propels me forward. If I am serious, I give too much thought to things and talk myself out of most situations. “Yes,” I lied. “Well then,” said Sarah. “Let’s do it.”

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We are in a very privileged position at the Royal Exchange, where Sarah and I have been given the freedom to pursue the projects we have wanted to.

This has come from Sarah’s immense talent as a director, her ability to take something that could prove box-office poison and make it accessible and inclusive both for the actors and the audience. This ability comes from her strength to be true to herself and to follow her instincts. This is one of the many valuable lessons I have learned from her. As both an artist and a human, honesty, truth and staying loyal to strong instincts are invaluable. As women, I feel we are encouraged to question our instincts, to apologise for our honesty and doubt our ability. Hamlet changed that for me.

‘Would we have felt different if we were male and from a more privileged background? Probably’

Fast-forward 12 months and we are about to embark on our first day of rehearsals. Sarah has assembled an astonishingly talented and excitingly diverse cast. Sarah gets the best person for the job, regardless of skin colour, class or gender.

I won’t lie – rehearsals were hard. Many times, I thought I had bitten off so much more than I could chew. Even having such a wonderfully supportive cast around me, it was lonely at times. Hamlet is a mammoth task, not just mentally, but physically. Not only did I have to learn reams of dialogue (and constantly decipher the meaning of that dialogue), but I also had to learn to sword-fight (with a bit of unarmed combat thrown in for good measure). Not to mention that I had to be present almost constantly on stage for more than three hours.

I had to learn to trust myself, to enjoy myself and even if at times my faith in my ability waned, I had to hold on to the belief that others had in me, especially Sarah. I had to ignore all the naysayers and seize this wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was the hardest thing I have done to date, but the pride in the hard work and the achievement made it all worth it.

Maxine Peake: ‘Acting is a hard business to be brave in – you have to hang in there’

Whether people think it was a good performance or not, what I hold on to was the fact I conquered my fears. I conquered the negative chorus that constantly told me I couldn’t. I couldn’t do Shakespeare because I was born into the ‘wrong’ class. I couldn’t play Hamlet because I was a woman born into the ‘wrong’ class. Who are these people who tell us we can’t? They are not our friends. Friends encourage. Usually, in current times they are nameless and faceless keyboard narcissists. People whose main issue is with themselves and their fear. They attack because they haven’t the strength to 0vercome their own fears, or to put themselves on the line.

The more I work in this business and the older I get, I realise a lot of success is attached to having the ‘front’ to be a confident ‘blagger’: to say “yes” when you are not always sure. To accept a challenge head-on and believe in yourself. It’s not about being arrogant or overconfident; it’s just that if you don’t say yes someone else will, and then you’ll spend a lot of time and energy regretting that – the energy you could channel into doing. Of course, you need some talent, but talent is useless if you are not prepared to work hard and take risks.

So many people early on in my career told me that I couldn’t make it. If I had listened, I don’t have high hopes for where I’d be today, instead of where am I. You have to say: “I can”, “I will”. Listen to yourself and trust your instincts. To be or not to be? That really is the question.

Extract from Strength Thy Name Is a Working-Class Woman by Maxine Peake from Smashing It: Working-Class Artists on Life, Art and Making It Happen, published by the Westbourne Press next month

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