At the beginning of 2021, rumours were being published that Sir Ian McKellen would be returning to the stage as the titular character in Hamlet. The performance was to be an age-blind, gender-blind production where McKellen (82) would be returning to the role of the youthful Dane. The cast would be split between periods of dramatic teaching, McKellen being the only classic Shakespearean. Every time I mentioned this setup to those interested, I regularly got the reply, “This seems… wrong.”
It’s not shocking that many find this concept abrasive. How can someone escape the fact that the Prince of Denmark is twenty years older than his own mother? That a twenty-year-old Ophelia is pining for a lover who could be her grandfather?
McKellen had played the role before in 1971, admired for his part in the youthful and psychedelic production, the signature performance in the barrage of Shakespearian shows at the time. Who was to expect this new production would violently contrast every bit of the previous? This new production is brutalist in design, remarked as a “quixotic” performance of ages from the cast. The settings are sometimes clubs, sometimes old apartments, sometimes dirty streets or docks. A rusty fire escape hangs over the main stage expanding the paths around the kingdom of Denmark, far away from the previous’ psychedelic fairy-tale.
McKellen’s differing style to younger performers fits itself with the maddening conflict of Hamlet’s sanity. He is wise, aggressive, sarcastic, moronophobic to those around him. McKellen’s Hamlet has seen too much of a sensible world, and in relief uses his madness to do what both the elderly and the youthful excel in: angsty rebellion. This is adapted from Laurence Olivier’s performances, where Hamlet is distraught by his mother for marrying his uncle. McKellen has taken and adapted the role for this. He is as much playing the mentor to his enemies (his mother and his uncle) as a torn youth. In the scene where he confronts Gertrude you can see the roles change back and forth as McKellen’s own age seems to tip like a scale.
I watched this performance on August 13th 2021, the farthest row from the stage at the Windsor Royal. For many watching this performance it would have been their first time back in the theatre since the lockdowns. I happened to be sat next to a woman from Essex who told me in the interval about how she had loved travelling to London to watch Shakespeare. She had seen Hamlet a handful of times before in the main theatres. “But nothing like this”, she came to add.
Perhaps it’s the feeling of being back in theatres, perhaps it’s the decisions that have never been tried before on theatre, but I can’t say I found anything “wrong” with McKellen’s Hamlet. If anything, his performance encourages us to see what can be done with plays people already idolise, demonstrating how theatre is the best way to twist a concept away from the conventional.