Sean Mathias and Sir Ian McKellen (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)
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Age cannot wither them: has the casting of Ian McKellen as Hamlet gone too far?

Does age-blind casting work when adapting Shakespeare?

It was recently announced that Sean Mathias was to become artistic director of the Windsor Theatre Royal, a noble but rather neglected theatre directly opposite the castle. This was intriguing and welcome news; Mathias has had a high-profile career for decades, and, once theatres are allowed to reopen in whatever post-coronavirus world we can emerge into, it will be thrilling to see what he comes up with. The first two productions that he has planned are of great but well-known plays, namely Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard, that need a significant twist in order to be newsworthy. It is not yet clear what Mathias will be bringing to Chekhov, but his idea for Hamlet is a staggeringly bold one. He has cast his 81-year old frequent collaborator Ian McKellen, who first played the role half a century ago, as the Dane. Lest we forget, Hamlet is usually expected to be a young man aged between 20 and 30.

Lest we forget, Hamlet is usually expected to be a young man aged between 20 and 30.

Anyone who has ever seen McKellen on stage – as well as those who see him in the more age-appropriate role of Firs, the old servant, in The Cherry Orchard later in the season – will know that he is a truly peerless actor, managing to bring out the deepest nuances of a part in unexpected and thrilling ways. He is equally adept at light comedy and dark tragedy, and it is hard to think of many other actors who will bring more gravitas and passion to many of Hamlet’s greatest speeches. Likewise, there is something that an actor in his eighties can bring to the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy – a world-weariness while discussing death – that has a power and a poignancy that a younger actor, for all of their versatility and ability, cannot summon up. Residents or visitors to Windsor can expect to see something unique when the play is finally staged.

There is, of course, the counter-argument that age-blind casting of this nature is also fraught with difficulty. For a start, the actors traditionally cast as Gertrude, Polonius and Claudius are considerably older than Hamlet (although some daring productions have brought out the Oedipal frisson implicit in the play by casting an actress only a few years older than the actor playing her son), which means that, unless Mathias has some exceptionally daring strategy in mind, there will have to be age-reversed casting. But does this then mean that the actors playing roles such as Ophelia, Laertes and Horatio will have to be contemporaries of McKellen, or will they be the traditional twenty and thirty-something performers? To have consistency in these regards could run the risk of ridiculousness, but not having it could simply make McKellen’s casting look like an attention-seeking gimmick in an otherwise conventional production.

Certainly, he has a close and enduring relationship with the play and the part, and one shot through at least partially with regret. In his book Acting Shakespeare, McKellen wrote ruefully that ‘I’m always doubtful when an actor is dubbed ‘The Hamlet of his generation’, particularly as no-one ever wrote it about mine! Mind you, the competition was considerable: there were ten British Princes of Denmark in 1971.’ Back then, he had a clear insight into the part, describing it as how ‘Hamlet was a boy who knows exactly what has to be done but lacks the manly resources to do it. He grows up, until finally he is ready and the readiness is all. Shakespeare’s heroes all go on such painful journeys to maturity.’ Certainly, an 81-year old Hamlet can only be described as ‘mature’ in extremis, yet perhaps Mathias and McKellen will have a Beckettian conception of the play, which is best epitomised in the gravedigger scene towards its close: a man, waiting to die, gazing on the skull of his former jester. If the man is old, so much the better for the richness and the poignancy of the moment.

Recent attempts at introducing age-blindness to the stage have met with a decidedly mixed response. A 2010 Bristol Old Vic production of Romeo and Juliet was set in a care home; Juliet became a patient in the private ward, struggling to pay the ever-mounting bills, and Romeo was an NHS resident of the same home. Although this sounded like a gimmick too far, it met with excellent reviews and a warm reception, not least because something different and fresh had been done with a play that people have long since taken for granted. As Sian Phillips, who played Juliet, said at the time, ‘The high points of Juliet’s passion and happiness are very real, and if you play that too enthusiastically, the years drop away.’ It is as if the cast and director bore in mind the words of Friar Laurence: ‘Young men’s love then lies/Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.’

Unfortunately, this may have set a precedent that has seldom been executed so elegantly again. A few years ago, I saw a bewilderingly cast version of The Importance of Being Earnest with the sexagenarian Nigel Havers and the septuagenarian Martin Jarvis playing young men in their twenties; they had previously played the parts at the National Theatre in 1982 and were keen to give it another go. The production was hampered by all kinds of self-indulgences, beginning as a post-modern Noises Off-esque take on Wilde and ending as a more or less straight run through a well-worn classic. The only thing that I remember about it with any great clarity is that Havers was still, just about, able to summon up the boyish dash of a young man, and Jarvis was left to huff and puff about the stage like a Victorian maiden aunt, tutting away in ever-increasing gusts of disapproval.

And age-blind casting arguably reached its nadir a few years ago in Mark Rylance’s Old Vic production of Much Ado about Nothing, with Vanessa Redgrave as Beatrice and James Earl Jones as Benedick. Rylance’s recent mainstream success in film and on stage has blinded many to his eccentricity as both actor and cultural figure, and this production displayed his worst instincts to the full. Not only was the casting of two – let us be frank – elderly actors in a light-hearted comedy something of an issue when it came to creating laughs from physical humour, with Jones spending much of the play sitting in an armchair, but it made numerous lines sound ridiculous, such as Benedick, convinced that he should marry Beatrice, announcing ‘The world must be peopled’. By all accounts, the line, delivered in the erstwhile voice of Darth Vader’s most gravelly basso profundo, sounded more like a terrible threat than a cheery summation of a comic scene.

One of the joys of Shakespeare is that there is very little indication given in the text as to how old a given actor should be, which allows for a wide range of interpretations

Yet less self-indulgent directors than Rylance have seen the opportunity to cast actors of different ages as being as much an opportunity as any gender or colour-blind casting. One of the joys of Shakespeare is that there is very little indication given in the text as to how old a given actor should be, which allows for a wide range of interpretations. Lear is often played as decrepit, but could also be portrayed by a man in his late forties, as he was by Tom Wilkinson in a Royal Court production in the Nineties. Malvolio in Twelfth Night is often played as a middle-aged white man, but a daring staging, especially in these racially aware times, might have him interpreted as a younger BAME man or woman, which would make the characters’ disdain for him all the more dramatic and psychologically intriguing. Macbeth could be aged anywhere between 30 and 70 and the play work just as well. And, as the Bristol Old Vic Romeo and Juliet indicated, there is an especial poignancy in the casting of older actors in roles usually played by younger ones, as long as the production is not subsumed in half-arsed gimmickry.

All of which means that Mathias, who most recently directed McKellen in Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land, is treading into exciting if risky territory. He could have staged Hamlet with any number of young actors in their twenties and thirties and guaranteed a sell-out show, and we must be grateful that Daniel Radcliffe, fresh from his public disowning of JK Rowling, has not taken this opportunity to give the world his Prince of Denmark. Yet Mathias has chosen a bold and adventurous strategy, which will undoubtedly lead to a large number of column inches (including these) and, hopefully, lead to a dynamic and fascinating production, with a superb star performance from McKellen. Even if it is a flop – especially if it is one of Rylance-esque proportions – it will at least be another memorable one, for all the wrong, or right, reasons.

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