Theater

Hamlet review with Ian McKellen: Muddled with flashes of brilliance

With gender and colour-blind casting becoming increasingly old hat in theatreland, age is the final frontier as Ian McKellen tackles Hamlet at 82. Any doubts about physical fitness are swiftly (and rather randomly) addressed when he leaps on an exercise bike for an early soliloquy. Throughout, he dashes up stairs and scampers down ladders, before donning full fencing gear for the climactic duel. I confess, it takes a moment to suspend disbelief, but I was fully immersed by the end. The pervading problem with this production is ‘immersed in what?’ I could add: where, when and why?

McKellen brings a world-weary despair to the role of the Danish prince grieving the death of his father and raging that he alone knows his uncle Claudius is the murderer. His contempt for the duplicity or blindness of those around him stings in mocking exchanges and later furious denunciations but I was less convinced by the downplayed throwaway delivery of certain key internal moments. ‘To be or not to be’ is casually mused from a barber’s chair before the clippers start buzzing. Elsewhere, I couldn’t hear parts of some lines altogether.

It’s a thoughtful interpretation, mixing an old man’s philosophical cynicism about the frailties of human nature with flashes of fury for a broken world. But, like the rest of this production, it feels like an unfinished thought, somehow incomplete. Perhaps, of course, that is the state of this Danish prince, but it leaves the audience slightly hanging.

Alas, Francesca Annis is only on for a few marvelous (if rather panto) moments, groaning ghoulishly with ramped-up reverb echoes as The Ghost. Frances Barber is a late replacement for the dramatically departed Steven Berkoff. He and Emmanuela Cole exeunted stage left just days before opening, perhaps pursued by that famous bear. Barber brings wit and an impressive ringing clarity as the meddling and manipulative Polonius.

In a generally strong cast, Llinos Daniel delights as a deliciously deadpan gravedigger, beautifully matched by Alison Halstead there and in the wonderfully hammy ‘play within a play’ Hamlet stages to expose Claudius’ guilt.

The setting is resolutely vague with modern dress and mainly RP vowels, apart from Jenny Seagrove’s bizarrely thick and deadening Danish accent as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. It makes no sense. Her dour presence brings little to the proceedings, the dubious highlight being the rather silly despatch of her ridiculous wig.

The empty set is framed with metal prison stairs and overhead walkways, part of the audience seated on stage in tiered rows to either side. As the actors move around and through them, it adds a dynamic intensity yet simultaneously robs us of a clear sense of place, pulling focus from an already unfocused concept.

Hamlet asks such big questions about life, love and mortality but this production has no answers and, frustratingly, little human connection. Most characters feel rather one-note, each with a particular trait or tick. Too often they seem strangely disconnected from each other, speaking at rather than with, apart from the rather moving devotion between Hamlet and Horatio, a touchingly sincere Ben Allen.

Ultimately, it is always a joy to see McKellen in action but I never quite engaged with the agony and ecstasy of this towering tragedy. I remain intrigued, though, to see what this same company will do with Chekov’s Cherry Orchard in October.

HAMLET IS AT THE THEATRE ROYAL WINDSOR TO SEPTEMBER 25


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