Maxine Peake: from Shakespeare novice to punk-rock fairy queen

The actor talks growing up without the Bard and bringing his plays to a new generation

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Unlike Russell T Davies, Maxine Peake — who starred as Martha Costello in BBC1’s Silk, below — hadn’t had a lifelong love affair with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, when she was growing up she had little experience of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous son.

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“I didn’t perform Shakespeare at school, but I did watch Polanski’s Macbeth,” she tells me. She then went on to study Shakespeare at Rada but never acted in a production.

Now Peake is in her full fairy regalia, including leather body armour, swirling tattoos and a partially bald head.

“I’ve shaved — I’m committed to my art,” Peake laughs in a back room at Roath Lock studios in Cardiff, currently standing in for a magical Athenian forest. “I’ve got a sort of mad monk, Richard III bowl going on!”

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This punk-rock take on Titania, Queen of the Fairies (including a breastplate with “the biggest pair of bosoms you’ve ever seen”), is one of many ways Peake thinks Davies is making the play relevant to a new generation.

“It’s brilliant because it’s got Russell in there — mischievous and clever and fun and warm and witty, and challenging as well. And if you get a younger audience interested at the right age, they know it can be fun.”

Some of this accessibility has come from simplifying and cutting the original text and also from including the sort of CGI and prosthetics more associated with BBC Drama’s most famous TV production at Roath Lock.

“It’s great that we’re doing it with Russell and the Doctor Who hit-making factory,” she says. “You’ve got all the special effects, flying and thunderbolts.”

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Peake on the set of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

But isn’t there an argument that the play should speak for itself, that these changes are just dumbing it down for a mass audience? Not so.

“We’re so reverential to Shakespeare,” says Peake carefully. “I think you should look at it as a new play. You say, ‘That’s been said once, so you can cut that.’ Ninety minutes is perfect! That’s how long Shakespeare should be. You get all the best bits and the story is really clear and it’s just fun — that was one of the attractions really.”

Peake’s relationship with Shakespeare has changed drastically over the years, going from unfamiliarity to appearing in several productions of his plays, then two years ago becoming one of the few women to play Hamlet. But she still remembers missing out when younger — and she’s determined that today’s young people won’t feel the same.

“I think if you catch people’s imagination young enough, then they’ll dip into the other plays. They’ll find out what a great playwright he really was.”

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream airs on BBC1 tonight (Monday 30th May) from 8.30pm