Sir Ian McKellen first played Hamlet in 1971. Half a century later, at the age of 82, the actor returns to the most demanding of Shakespearean roles in an age-blind production at the beautiful Theatre Royal in Windsor. And he does so in a nail-biting context. Just days before the opening of Sean Mathias’s production, the actors playing Polonius and Laertes, Steven Berkoff and Emmanuella Cole, dropped out after reportedly clashing in rehearsals.
You might have thought that McKellen would give himself up anew to the demands of Hamlet by turning the production into a kind of self-reflexive one-man show – perhaps in the manner of Robert Lepage’s Hamlet-based one-hander Elsinore – but nothing could be further from the truth. He is at once electrically courageous and unassuming.
Screen stardom has given McKellen a degree of latitude that he did not have when he was merely a phenomenal stage actor, and now he has had the freedom to, one might say, don the rollers and let out his inner Ena Sharples. The miracle here – and it is an uber-feat – is that McKellen wholly subsumes himself into an interpretation of the part that makes you, for long periods, quite forget the difference between his calendar age and the hero’s official age (which, by the end of the play, is probably 31). He does this by being wholly truthful to his fresh, utterly lived-in conception of the part.
This is a production that has taken nothing for granted. While I was initially disappointed that they jettisoned the great opening scene on the battlements (surely one of the greatest opening scenes in world drama), I was enthralled by the decision, for example, that Gertrude and Claudius have no dastardly ground, but are living hand to mouth. Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude takes to drink because she is rattled by the inexplicability of what is going on.
The Theatre Royal has the freedom and flexibility of the Globe, with onstage seating for a group of punters. McKellen is agog with eagerness and whirls around the gantries and walkways designed with flair by Lee Newby. He has a beautiful foil in Ben Allen’s exquisite Horatio.
A great actor can play prodigious tricks with time. This Hamlet is beside himself with the cockeyed wonder of it in the sequence between the end of the fencing match with Laertes and his death (which, here, is undistracted by the arrival of Fortinbras).
Eighty-two? I couldn’t have attempted this sequence when I was 22 or even possibly 12. I look forward to watching it again when the production hits the West End – as it surely must.