The Guardian has published a great new article about Maxine. I’ve posted it below, it’s a good after work read so you should definitely check it out!
Actor defied early rejections from drama schools to become one of Britain’s most exciting stage names, winning plaudits for her roles as well as her personality
Maxine Peake: ‘I don’t like modern life. I pine for the simplicity of the past.’
It is a mark of the boldness and versatility of Maxine Peake that she is one of the few actors to have played both Ophelia and Hamlet in productions of Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy. And this protean quality is currently on show every night at the Manchester Royal Exchange theatre, where, portraying an ancient shape-shifter in a revival of Caryl Churchill’s play The Skriker, she inhabits a vast range of characters – old, young, male, female, English, American, historical, contemporary, mythical – during two hours of being almost permanently on stage.
British actors who have just done a successful movie – Peake is in the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything – and starred in a hit TV series (she played an ambitious barrister in Silk) often move on to Hollywood or Broadway. And, while those options remain open, it seems typical of Peake that she should now appear in a piece of experimental theatre; The Skriker combines music, movement and torrential monologues in an invented language.
Peake was born in Bolton, and The Skriker is the sixth time in 10 years the actor has worked in Manchester with Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, where Peake was a member of the youth theatre as a teenager. Her performance in the title role of Hamlet last year, a show that numerous producers elsewhere would love to have hosted, was for Exchange audiences only and set box office records.
“She chooses to live in the north and often to work there,” says Frankcom. “It’s a very important part of who she is.”
An earlier generation of northern actors – including Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney – were encouraged to southernise their vowels in theatre, and while Britain has become more tolerant of dialect, increasing screen possibilities in the US place a fresh pressure on actors to even out their speech. Frankcom notes that Peake, born in 1974, “has resolutely never lost her Boltonian accent and I think that’s very important for young actors because we can still be funny about regional accents in theatre, partly, I’m afraid, for class reasons. But Max is very proud of where she comes from.”
Anyone drawn to The Skriker by having seen Peake in Silk will be impressed by an acting range that easily encompasses both screen realism and theatrical surrealism. However, Peter Moffat, writer of three TV series in which Peake has starred – Criminal Justice, Silk and The Village – believes there is a unifying factor across her work: risk. Most obviously, she braved tabloid editorialising to play the Moors murderer Myra Hindley in a 2006 TV mini-series but, even in less obviously edgy parts, says Moffat, there is a level of jeopardy.
“I think she likes playing roles that people don’t think she’s going to be able to do. That’s true of Hamlet, clearly. But, when I first saw her at an audition for Criminal Justice, she was this northern young woman who convinced us that she could play a posh London character with an RP accent. In Silk, she wasn’t obvious casting for a QC. I think there can be an edge and danger that comes from the actor worrying if they’re going to be able to pull it off. And that crackle comes through the screen.”
Maxine Peake in The Skriker.
Theatrical anecdote suggests that Peake’s portrayal of the Prince of Denmark resulted from Frankcom asking her which part would most terrify her to play. The director, though, says that isn’t quite right. Generally, their joint projects have been suggested by Frankcom or Alex Poots, artistic director of the Manchester festival, but Hamlet was the exception: “Ever since I’d known her, Max was saying that was what she wanted to do and I’d kept saying it was too early to try something like that, but eventually the time seemed right.”
A key decision for female Hamlets – a tradition that stretches back to the theatrical pioneer Sarah Bernhardt – is how manly to be. Peake, with a short peroxide crop, opted for androgyny and sexual ambiguity, which brought a new perspective to the prince’s struggle to be the man he wants to be. Her Hamlet also transmitted a sense of danger, looking as if he could do some damage in the climactic duel.
Born in Westhoughton, in Bolton, she is the youngest daughter of Brian, a retired lorry driver, and Glynis, a former careworker. Her older sister, Lisa, became a police officer when Peake was a teenager: a profession that challenged the family’s leftwing, union-supporting politics. As part of the recruitment process, a sergeant came to meet the family, finding Maxine, as she told a BBC interviewer, wearing an African awareness pendant, trainers with an anarchy sign drawn on and a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament badge. “What Lisa and her colleagues go through, particularly on Saturday night in Manchester, is appalling. I have huge admiration for her,” she has said.
Maxine’s acting ambitions were thwarted by repeated rejections from drama schools before she earned a scholarship to Rada at the age of 21. Soon after graduation, she had two standout roles on TV: as Twinkle in Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies and Veronica in Paul Abbott’s Shameless.
An unusual aspect of Peake’s pre-acting CV is that she was a talented rugby league player for Wigan Ladies and Moffat believes that this strength and athleticism brings a useful physicality to her work: “The thing about Maxine is that she can credibly run, fight and punch. There’s a scene in The Village where her character is fighting in the mud to get her child back and Maxine got so into it that the crew had to pull her away.”
In the area of mental exercise, the actor’s recent theatre projects include a play about the cycling legend Beryl Burton, which was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Along with The Skriker – one of the longest and oddest parts in modern theatre – this move suggests a continuing desire to test herself.
On Manchester projects, Peake now takes the unusual credit “creative associate and lead artist”, although Frankcom describes her as “very much a company member”. During a TV production, Peake noticed that a young actor was not only eating huge amounts at the catering truck every lunchtime but then inviting his girlfriend to the meals as well.
It turned out the man was not being paid due to an accounting error he was too nervous to raise. Peake went to see the producers and got the payroll sorted out. This democratic instinct is also apparent at the end of The Skriker, when, as the audience tries to give Peake a solo ovation for her feat of vocal and physical athleticism, she quickly waves on the other actors to share the applause.
Her role in Silk led her to join a protest against legal aid cuts.
Another of her deeply held values is that, as Frankcom says, “she wants to do plays that mean something politically and socially”. Her level of ideological commitment is such that the role in Silk provoked Peake to march with lawyers campaigning against restrictions on legal aid. When an actor asked her recently what she thought of Game of Thrones, she answered that she “hadn’t seen it, obviously”, the final word referring to her refusal to subscribe to a network owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Sometimes, though, a political subtext may lead her to choose the wrong text. How To Hold Your Breath, a new play by Zinnie Harris at the Royal Court in London, had big things to say about the future of Europe, but the script was underwritten and obscurely staged.
A moment during that run, though, showed Peake’s depths of concentration and professionalism. One night, as Peake delivered the climactic monologue, a member of the audience became seriously unwell, resulting in a shout for a medical professional and noisy clambering over seats to reach the stricken theatregoer. A momentary flicker in Peake’s eyes revealed that she had noticed something was going on, but she remained word-perfect through a complex speech.
This ability to maintain focus has also been noted by Moffat during TV shoots. “Filming can be tedious and repetitive. But even by the seventh take of a scene, she’s still listening to what the other actor says and responding to it, giving you something fresh.”
Although she will continue to be offered major TV roles, her recent work suggests a move away from peak-time Peake towards something more like the career of Tilda Swinton, who has won an Oscar but is just as likely to turn up as a living artwork at the Serpentine Gallery or perform a Samuel Beckett monologue in a converted phone booth in the Scottish Highlands.
“I think it’s partly because there aren’t obvious career routes for actresses when they get to 40,” says Frankcom, “and so you have to work out what it is you want to do. I think Max has learned the cost of doing things she doesn’t believe in and so now she has to be really committed to something.”
Peake has attributed her artistic freedom partly to having a smaller mortgage than her London-based contemporaries – due to living in Salford with her partner, artist Pawlo Wintoniuk. She is writing a play and, with Frankcom, planning a seventh Manchester collaboration, which remains under wraps. A new play or a classic? “Ah. A bit of both, really,” says the director, tantalisingly. Moffat, meanwhile, plans more scripts for The Village and is also working on a stage monologue for Peake about a standup comedian.
“I’ve done 30 hours of television with her now,” says Moffat, “and she has never spoken a line of mine wrongly. There has never been an interpretation that jarred, which is very rare. She has this native actor’s intelligence for what you intended or even sometimes to go beyond that and show you something you didn’t know was there.”
“I simply wouldn’t be able to predict what sort of work she’d be doing in five years,” says Frankcom. “And that tells you a lot about her.”
Born: 14 July, 1974, Bolton
Career: Initially rejected by every drama school in the north-west, accepted at Rada at 21. Her breakthrough roles were in TV comedies by northern writers: Paul Abbott’s Shameless and Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies. Although Peake’s career has subsequently gone into very different areas, Wood was a crucial early mentor.
High point: A feat of learning and performance, requiring extraordinary levels of vocal and physical power, The Skriker (at the Manchester Royal Exchange until 18 July) is the perfect showcase for her talents.
Low point: Her early rejection raises worrying questions about possible class and social prejudice in drama recruitment.
She says: “I’m old-fashioned. I don’t like modern life. I pine for the simplicity of the past and the connections people had.”
They say: “In her Chairman Mao suit and David Bowie hair, Peake uses every part of the stage, every prop, every poise of the body to deliver a 400-year-old script as if the words have just come to her.” – Manchester Evening News on her Hamlet