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The undiscovered country

Ian McKellen’s Hamlet meets impossibly high expectations

Artillery Row

Last year, it was announced that Ian McKellen would be leading an age-blind, gender-blind and colour-blind cast in a new production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor. The announcement was made with more optimism than any actual determination, on the grounds that live performances of theatre have been all but impossible for the past eighteen months. I was intrigued but also somewhat cynical as to whether this would ever be staged, due to a combination of the age of many of the actors in it. Perhaps, I thought, it would end up being done “as live”, filmed and then streamed worldwide. A shame, but probably unavoidable.

If I had foolishly bet some item of my clothing on such a wager, I would today be eating it, as impresario magnifique Bill Kenwright probably the only theatrical producer who also owns a football club has pulled it off, in some style. Amidst a sea of openings that have either not taken place at all, or have stuttered to a halt after press night, McKellen has, at the age of 82, given his Dane, for the first time in half a century. The opening night’s audience in Windsor, mask-clad to a man or woman, laughed and applauded in all the right places. But did it live up to the impossibly high expectations that have been placed upon it?  

The Denmark court is a place of shreds and patches

The director Sean Mathias has form working with McKellen, not least because the two men were partners in life for many years. Recently, the two collaborated on a revival of Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart; it comes as little surprise that this new Hamlet has a Beckettian air to it. The set, designed by Lee Newby, is not a beautiful one, being a bleak assemblage of scaffolding with no especial redeeming features to it. The Denmark court, as depicted here, is a place of shreds and patches, from which even Jonathan Hyde’s beautifully spoken Claudius cannot emerge with any dignity or discretion. Gravediggers muck about in the mire; princes mope about in hoodies and jeans. The world has ended, and a few more deaths make little difference. 

Mathias’ production is working from a text of unusual brevity, which makes the evening speed by with aplomb, until a slower final act. The first scene has been removed altogether, and there are many other cuts that both surprise and startle. It seems an act of near-perversity to cast an actress as excellent as Francesca Annis as the Ghost, then give her a single scene on stage. Admirers of Ms Annis will be relieved to hear that she will be returning in a considerably larger role in Mathias’ forthcoming staging of The Cherry Orchard, which is opening at Windsor in the autumn. But the evening rattles along, as if terrified of boring its audience. Thankfully, this is not done at the expense of clarity or comprehensibility, helped immensely by Adam Cork’s sound design and score, which gives the dread narrative a mournful, at times disturbing, feel.

The reason why the production is probably the most talked-about thing on the British stage at the moment is, of course, McKellen. His interpretation of Hamlet is a fascinating and quixotic one. I had expected him to be mournful and laden with pathos, taking the great soliloquies slowly and mining them carefully for every touch of resonance and dread. There is something unique about a man an old man, let us be frank delivering such fear-laden lines as “But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”, and I had expected McKellen to milk them for all that they are worth. 

This is not an ingratiating Hamlet

Instead, he does the opposite. Although there is no serious attempt to make him seem youthful, he does a more than creditable job in the various fighting and movement scenes, pacing about the set with an alacrity and energy that would put many people half his age to shame. He delivers the major speeches with a remarkable, almost Gielgudian purr, never dwelling on the moments that one might expect to be mined for pathos or resonance. This is not an ingratiating Hamlet. I didn’t feel any sense of being deeply moved, as I was with Rory Kinnear at the National in 2010, or wholly sympathetic, as I did with Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic in 2004. What I felt instead was a sense of respect and near-admiration, although I was never entirely sure whether I felt this for McKellen, for Hamlet or for the creative team, who have worked with Kenwright to pull off something fairly remarkable. 

There are, inevitably, flaws. I could not work out why Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude was affecting a heavy Mittel-European accent, complete with blonde wig, that made her look and sound like Frau Blücher from Young Frankenstein. The way that the production throws away the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is perverse. Also, some of the minor parts are not cast particularly brilliantly. But these should be taken in conjunction with the production’s successes and strengths, most of all McKellen. 

I have written here, over and over again, about what I think that the problems in contemporary British theatre are. I believe that there is a lack of vision and daring that has been concealed under a thin façade of apparently socially conscious programming, along with a lazy dependence on tropes and the same old cabal of writers. Well, it seems strange to be applauding a new production of a 400-odd year old play for bringing something fresh to the stage, just as it is peculiar to be suggesting that an actor as eminent and beloved as McKellen should play other roles of this nature from now on. But this is commendable and exciting, and should be welcomed. More of this sort of thing, please. 

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