By William Shakespeare, Theater Royal, Windsor
An 82-year-old playing Hamlet? A role traditionally played by someone at least half a century younger ?! His mother Gertrude played by a woman 20 years younger than him?
Surely it was going to take an actor with the superpowers of Magneto from the X-Men and the magical touch of Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings to carry out such a daring endeavor.
Fortunately, in Sir Ian McKellen, the Theater Royal in Windsor has both.
We all got used to color and gender blind castings in the theater. Nobody cares about your gender or your skin color anymore. But the production of Sean Mathias goes further, with an even more radical idea. “Blind” casting.
It turns everything we assume about ourselves upside down. And it takes a bit of getting used to, in a production where Mathias has rearranged the text, cutting an hour out of Shakespeare’s longest play to last just two hours and 50 minutes (including an interval ).
Not that McKellen needs to take a breather. He’s the kind of octogenarian we all aspire to be.
Haunted: Ian McKellen as Dane with Yorick. Sean Mathias’ production goes further, with an even more radical idea. Casting “blind to age”, writes Patrick Marmion
With a casual member but an antique voice, there is a mischievous side to her retired Dane. He seems as intoxicated as he is intoxicating.
Not only does he have the stamina to climb the stairs on the portico (with some members of the audience sitting below on stage). He also finds the energy for a fencing match with his deadly rival Laertes at the end. And this, in a crowded theater on a sweltering night on the banks of the Thames.
Once you suspend your disbelief, it’s a fascinating new perspective on the Prince of Denmark. The old-fashioned Gielgudian delivery, wobbly and jogged the tobacco-y Lancashire accent with its hissing whistle is very familiar. And Mc-Kellen speaks the Bard’s iambic pentameter as easily as Gordon Ramsay swears.
But there is something really interesting going on here. It is as if his Hamlet was haunted by the shadow of senility, as much as by his mission to kill the usurper king who murdered his father and married his mother.
His famous soliloquies are invested not only with a virtuoso technique (“and yet for me what is this quintessence of T-dust”, he spits), but also with the wisdom of his time.
In the most famous speech of all – “to be or not to be” – Hamlet is often seen as lost and perplexed.
Jenny Seagrove as Gertrude. She too brings an intensity of steel, as if trying to erase her guilt for betraying her son and her former husband.
Yet McKellen makes him sadder and more resigned, bringing overwhelming melancholy and pathos. It’s as if Shakespeare’s other great character, King Lear (whom McKellen has played twice in the past 14 years), is having a bad night in Bedlam, dreaming of his lost youth.
Yet, although Sir Ian steps the stage like a colossus, this is not a one man show. The always formidable Frances Barber took on the role of courtier and patriarch Polonius after the retirement of Steven Berkoff.
Officially, it was because of a scheduling conflict. But there were also rumors of other clashes – vigorously denied by director Mathias – with Emmanuella Cole, who had played Polonius’ son, Laertes, and who also left the company. Ashley D Gayle makes a sturdy replacement.
Barber is an actress capable of chewing even more sets with histrionic than Berkoff, but here she offers a subtle blend of pomp and tenderness. His Polonius is a revelation.
A revelation: Frances Barber in the role of Polonius. Barber is an actress capable of chewing even more sets with histrionic than Berkoff, but here she offers a subtle blend of pomp and tenderness.
Francesca Annis (who played Juliet opposite McKellen’s Romeo in 1976) plays a creepy ghost who seems to speak from the bottom of a well.
And there’s an Ophelia rocker to remember in Alis Wyn Davies, who properly derails, screaming shattering versions of Shakespeare songs.
My only uncertainty was that Jenny Seagrove adopted what looked like a German accent to Hamlet’s mother.
But she too brings an intensity of steel, as if trying to suppress her guilt for betraying her son and her former husband.
You can see more polished productions than that – they can be rough and spy on the edges. But it is undoubtedly an event. I doubt we will ever see his like again.