Hamlet the Dane with Ian McKellen
“I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.”
It’s the one we all have been waiting for. Summer Artistic Director at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, Sean Mathias has persuaded Sir Ian McKellen to reprise his role of Hamlet after a hiatus of fifty years. Well, I have seen Sir Ian as the Dame, Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic but never before as the Dane!
When Alec Guinness played Hamlet seventy years ago, there was outrage! Why? Because he had a beard. I have always maintained that one should fall in love with Hamlet as I did as a schoolgirl with Peter O’Toole, several years before McKellen first took the role.
I saw this play from an unusual angle, not from a press seat but onstage sitting in the front row of the public who are actually on the stage. The effect was two fold. Firstly, most of the large speeches were delivered with their back to you but the clarity of voice was perfect. Secondly, this seating creates an intimacy with the production, an involvement creating amazing memories, not least because you can concentrate on the words.
I found myself won over. Within minutes I had stopped worrying about age in this Gender Blind, Age Blind and Colour Blind production. The other two blinds do not worry me for I have had enough practice. The era blind production is the century Edwardian to the present day.
The opening scene reminded me of those impressive Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the 1990s, black umbrellas, snow, heavy winter coats. Hamlet himself wearing a black cloaked great coat with top hat and dark glasses: more Child Catcher than royal prince. From the balcony onstage, Gertrude (Jenny Seagrove) and Claudius (Jonathan Hyde) celebrate their wedding while the others are at the funeral. Found myself in Windsor, within sight of the castle, thinking about the age of the current Prince of Wales.
Francesca Annis, playing Madam Ranevskaya in the companion production of The Cherry Orchard at Windsor from October, has an excellent stab at the sonorous and resonating ghost on the upper level but she is only seen once at the beginning of the play. I would have preferred her as Gertrude or Ophelia.
Jenny Seagrove as Gertrude has a large blonde wig and a strange accent which must be Scandinavian, as I couldn’t determine Swedish from Danish, but it’s an odd and isolated choice. The key with Gertrude is whether she will listen to her son and reject Claudius after the closet scene. Seagrove is ambiguous on this point, her face almost blank. Hamlet has torn off her wig. Jonathan Hyde as Claudius will hold out his crooked arm to her at Ophelia’s funeral but she does not take it. I actually felt sorry for Claudius in his soliloquy, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain here below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
Frances Barber having taken over the role from Stephen Berkoff is a fussy, pernickety civil servant as Polonius should be. Laertes (Ashley D Gayle) is very strong and it is easy to imagine his charisma with the crowd, helped of course by the soundscape when he returns and confronts Claudius. Ophelia (Alis Wyn Davies) plays her guitar but doesn’t seem to be nunnery or girlfriend material.
Fortinbras is mentioned in the text but not seen, ending up as he often does on the cutting room floor. Rosencrantz (Lee Knight) and Guildenstern (Asif Khan) are an awkward moment of betrayal inspiring “What a piece of work is a man,” but the entrance of the players changes the mood.
So what about the prince himself? His “To be or not to be” soliloquy is spoken to Horatio. His fitness regime has him in a vest on a Peloton as he delivers ” O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity in incestuous sheets.” Presumably the exercise bike is to do with this, “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy.
Hamlet’s affected madness sees his head shaved, one trouser leg mid calf, a beanie and missing one shoe. The “old men have gray beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit,” gets an inevitable chuckle.
I found I hadn’t warmed to Ophelia enough to be distressed at her madness scene. The duel is well fought with fencing foils and masks. Gertrude is increasingly unsteady towards the end of the play so Claudius’s line “Gertrude do not drink!” may have a double meaning.
This is a traditional reading of the play from Sean Mathias. Maybe the casting innovation was enough? I feel overall the two lead women do not do justice to McKellen’s magnificently sounding Hamlet but who needs them? I was reminded of The Tragedy of Hamlet at the Young Vic starring Adrian Lester and directed by Peter Brook, where only Hamlet’s scenes appear and thinking that might suit McKellen.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sean Mathias
Alis Wyn Davies
Ashley D Gayle
Director: Sean Mathias
Set Designer: Lee Newby
Lighting Designer: Zoe Spurr
Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Costume Designer: Loren Elstein
Choreographer: Wayne McGregor
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running Time: Two hours 50 minutes with one interval
Booking to 25th September 2021
Theatre Royal Windsor
32 Thames St
01753 853 888
Website: Theatre Royal Windsor
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the last preview performance
at the Theatre Royal Windsor
on 19th June 2021