Hamlet Review with Ian McKellen: Mixed with flashes brilliance

Ian McKellen, 82 years old and a veteran of theatreland’s gender-blind cast, tackles Hamlet. He quickly (and quite randomly) addresses any doubts regarding his physical fitness when he jumps onto an exercise bike to begin the soliloquy. He scurries up and down stairs, then he puts on his fencing gear to win the final duel. Although it took me a while to suspend my disbelief, I found myself fully immersed in the ending. This production has a fundamental problem: “immersed in what?” The fundamental problem with this production is ‘immersed in what?’. I might add: where, when or why?

McKellen plays the Danish prince, who is grieving his father’s death and lamenting that only he knows Claudius was the murderer. While McKellen’s contempt for blindness or duplicity of others stings in mocking exchanges, and then furious denunciations later on, I found it less convincing than the downplayed delivery of key internal moments. Before the buzzing clippers begin, the barber casually muses on “To be or to not be”. Some lines were not audible to me elsewhere.

This is a well-thought out interpretation that combines an older man’s philosophy about human frailty with a rage for the broken world. It feels incomplete, unfinished, just like all the other parts of this production. It is possible that this was the Danish prince’s state, but the production leaves the audience somewhat hanging.

Francesca Annis will only be there for a handful of wonderful (if not pantomime) moments. She groans ghoulishly over the blaring echoes of The Ghost’s reverb. Frances Barber replaces the tragically departed Steven Berkoff. He was accompanied by Emmanuela Cole, who left the stage just days prior to opening. Perhaps he was being pursued and accosted by the famous bear. Barber is a brilliant witter and possesses an amazing ringing clarity, as well as being manipulative Polonius.

Llinos Dan delights in playing a delightfully deadpan gravedigger with a strong cast. Alison Halstead is perfectly matched there, and on the Hammy stage Hamlet to reveal Claudius’ guilt.

It is a very vague setting with modern clothing and mainly RP vowels. Jenny Seagrove, who plays Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, has a bizarre and thick Danish accent. It makes no sense. It is a dull presence. The dubious highlight of the evening was her silly wig despatch.

Framed with overhead walkways and metal prison steps, the empty set has part of the audience sitting on stage in tiers to one side. It adds an intense energy to the show, but also takes away our sense of place.

Hamlet has such deep questions about love, death, and life. Unfortunately, this production doesn’t have any answers. There is also very little connection between the actors. Each character has a unique trait and tick, so most characters feel solitary. They often seem oddly distant from one another, talking at instead of with each other. This is aside from Hamlet’s touching devotion to Horatio and Ben Allen, who are both deeply sincere.

It is always an enjoyable experience to watch McKellen work, but it never felt like I could fully grasp the terror and joy of such a tragic event. It is still a mystery to me, however, what the same company will do in October with Chekov’s Cherry Orchard.

HAMLET IS AT THE THEATRE ROYAL WINDSOR TO SEPTEMBER 25

Publited Sat, 24 July 2021 at 11:51:00 +0000

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