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Peake Performance

 The Big Issue in the North (UK) 21 February 2019

From Veronica in Shameless to Myra Hindley, Maxine Peake has played no end of memorable women on stage and screen. But, she says, good parts are getting harder to find. (1647 Words) - By Lianne Steinberg


BITN_ Peake

 Photo: Retts Wood

In West Yorkshire Playhouse's new production of Terence Rattigan's 'The Deep Blue Sea' actor Maxine Peake plays the lead role of Hester, a woman who walked out on her husband for a younger man. But her passion and deep love aren't reciprocated and she is driven to a suicide attempt. It's a heavyweight part that sits perfectly alongside Peake's roll call of characters that includes Moors murderer Myra Hindley, John Prescott's secretary Tracey Temple, an abused wife in Criminal Justice and Victorian Yorkshire landowner and lesbian Anne Lister.

Unafraid to tackle life's less triumphant and more challenging moments, Peake's physical presence and capacity to convey the deepest of emotions with grace and intuition stands her as one of our most treasured talents. Yet the 36-year-old from Bolton remains somewhat suspicious of any acclaim and the fact that The Deep Blue Sea director Sarah Esdaile sought her out for the role of Hester still came as a shock.

"The director is always going to say that," Peake jokes. "It was great though.I hadn't read any Rattigan before," she says. "When I read it I really liked it. But I still didn't understand why she thought I'd be good for it, but me being slightly perverse thought it doesn't look easy so I'll have to do it."

While Peake's ability to play the thinking man's leading lady has meant that she's received critical acclaim for her work, unequivocally defining her appeal remains a difficult task.

"Some people say 'I think you're right for this' and you think 'You what?! I don't see that at all.' Sometimes I get a script and think it's perfect for me but then they won't audition me for it. I suppose it's about what you give off - if you ask three people to describe one person they'll often describe three different attributes for that same person. But it's great when someone recognises something in you that you can't. If we saw ourselves as we are, I think we'd all be quite shocked," she giggles.

It's over a decade since she made her name as the cheeky Twinkle in Dinnerladies and four years since she swaggered out of Shameless as the brassy Veronica. "I don't feel like a different actor but I'm treated a bit differently now. I'm taken a bit more seriously or as a bit more of a proper actor. For years

I felt I was knocking on doors saying 'give us a go'. Even though I was working, the stuff I really wanted to do seemed a bit out of reach but now it's a bit like: 'Crikey, people think I can do this.' It's funny when you get what you wish for. In fact, it's a bit odd."

Peake's excitement about treading the boards in Leeds is palpable. Her last stage work was The Children's Hour in 2008 at Manchester's Royal Exchange. With a series of television dramas due to be aired this season, finding herself away from the cameras has given her time to reflect on her methods.

"It's so weird to be sat around a table discussing ideas and characters rather than just getting up after five minutes of discussion and filming it. As far as British television goes at the moment, there's very little preparation. They're trying to make everything for as little money as possible and as an actor or member of the crew you want to do the best you can but that doesn't always feel possible in those conditions. You shouldn't knock it though. I'm only acting - it's not like I'm a miner or working on an NHS ward, or anything like that where people should feel sorry for me. But in any line of work you feel frustrated if it's not facilitated properly."

In The Deep Blue Sea she plays a married woman who runs off with a young RAF pilot. Criminal Justice saw her as a tormented young wife and mother. In Room At The Top, an adaptation of the John Braine novel, due to screen on BBC4, she is a frustrated older married woman turned seductress. She is an ambitious defence barrister aiming to become a QC in new BBC drama Silk. Does Peake feel as though she's now destined to play the older woman?

"I suppose I do. I have to go 'wow, you are 36 now' and that is classed as grown up. But when you're acting, you sort of forget and I still think 'what do you mean I can't play someone in their mid-twenties?' When I was in my mid-twenties I probably couldn't have played a mid-twenties type because I've never particularly looked that way. I look at other people from drama school that are my age like Sally Hawkins and Joanna Page and they're still young and gorgeous and playing the younger characters. I think, what happened? I'm playing a mother of three. I'll be playing grandmothers before I know it."

Her preparation for The Deep Blue Sea and its themes of attraction, love and betrayal, and post-war dislocation mirrored that for Room At The Top.

"Both really show how the war had an impact on people's lives and how it affected a nation. I don't think people dealt with it as we expected them to. In an odd way there was a sense of loss because during the war people were living day to day, on the edge, and when that fear is taken away it's not always a relief if you're living at full pelt. There are a lot of mixed emotions when that stops. Room At The Top looks at how Britain was changing and moving into the 1950s with things like the NHS and this supposedly bright new future which… well, we're on the slippery slope back down, aren't we?"

Peake's grandfather was a member of the Communist Party and she was too when she was younger. Maybe it's her working class upbringing that has made Peake so resilient to the superficial whims of the acting world, conducting her career away from the spotlight and shunning the London lifestyle for the sake of being near her family in Salford.

If there is a thread of consistency connecting Peake's recent work in recent years, it's that her characters are all faced with ethical dilemmas throwing our assessment of compassion, mercy and love up for questioning.

"That's what makes me tick as a person. Of course I'm also itching to do a big old camp comedy," she laughs, "but I like things with a message or stories that may change people's perceptions. I'm very interested in social commentary and I'm so fascinated by this country and human nature.

"I wouldn't say when I first wanted to be actor that was the reason but as you get older you become fascinated by people and their motivations. I think about that sense of humanity: how as a race we keep going. How can we be so cruel to each other when there have also been those moments of beauty that we share? I feel like the structure of society is completely breaking down and it's quite scary."

The current political climate in the UK is something that deeply troubles Peake and she was recently quoted as condemning spending cuts for theatre and television.

"People have been hit over the head time and time again - it's hard to think what to do. If you go on a demo then it's like what happened with the students - it's fantastic but when they start smashing up buildings and throwing fire extinguishers, you realise we've not got it right. We need some common goals so we can go: 'Right, enough's enough.' But I'm an actor, not a politician. It's not my job to spout off my beliefs and I'm not so arrogant to think people will listen to what I say. Someone asked me about cuts in regional theatre and I said it's disgusting but it applies to cuts everywhere. I do think if I open my mouth about it, will I do any damage but I also think if you've got opinions you should voice them and if I didn't speak honestly I'd feel pretty bad with myself."

With a desire to keep finding challenging roles, it seems fair to compare Peake to an acclaimed musician who hasn't gone pop.

"I'm happy with that because that's what my record collection is like! I'd love to write and I'm creeping up to my forties so I just don't know because the work gets harder and less consistent. They don't write parts for women in their forties and they don't write enough parts for women per se. We seem to be obsessed with youth. I've always been more interested in older characters; mainly because when

I was 20 most of the characters that age on screen didn't say anything  - I sound like Morrissey now - to me about my life."

Considering her Shameless co-star James McAvoy has gone on to find a place in Hollywood, there's a nagging feeling that somehow Peake's talent should be more widely recognised.

"I don't think I'd get asked to be in a Hollywood film. It's different for a female at my age. James is a very talented, handsome young man and I've never looked like a Hollywood actress. Of course America isn't somewhere I'd rule out but I do love this country. I'm interested in being part of stories that I feel connected to so I've not given up on Britain yet."

The Deep Blue Sea, 18 February-2 March, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds.

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Originally published by The Big Issue in the North ©

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