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Hamlet: Sir Ian McKellen's age-blind prince divides critics

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Sir Ian McKellen

image copyrightPA Media

When William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, the titular character was aged about 30, so it was always bound to provoke interest when stage and screen veteran Sir Ian McKellen was cast in the role.

The new age-blind production of the play officially opened up at the Theatre Royal Windsor this week, a mere 50 years since the 82-year-old actor first played the part.

Critics have called it “daring”, “compelling” and “a haphazard mess”.

The Guardian gave it three stars.

Its writer Arifa Akbar said Sir Ian brought “brilliant nuance and daring” to his part as the Prince of Denmark in director Sean Mathias’s production.

“If this is madness – and it feels like it at times – there is method in it, and McKellen slows down for the lesser-known speeches, drawing the play’s heart away from the big-hitting soliloquies and focusing on the beauty and depth of these meditative moments,” wrote Akbar.

‘A prince of all time and age’

Marks were reduced however for the play being “marred by some eccentric decisions”, she noted.

“Eccentric decisions include cutting up Hamlet’s first, searing soliloquy: McKellen begins it, only to leave the stage and return to resume his thoughts while spinning on a stationary exercise bike. To be or not to be is later delivered at a barber’s. If the point is that we have the deepest of thoughts in the most banal of places, these scenes still feel strained and removed from the rest of the play.”

Yet, she concluded: “The production’s salvation, ultimately, is the play itself whose power rests so much on the shoulders of its lead part. McKellen’s understated artistry renders Hamlet a prince of all – and any – time and age.”

Actress Frances Barber stars alongside Sir Ian McKellen in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor

image copyrightPA Media

The Telegraph were less effusive in the headline of their review, however, declaring: “Ian McKellen’s age-blind prince can’t fool the audience – however good his stamina.”

The article is now unavailable online, but the same newspaper reviewed one of last month’s preview shows more favourably.

“This Hamlet lights up when the ‘players’ come to town and the chief point is that, throughout, he doesn’t just believe in the role, he commits to the value of theatre tout court – that’s inspiring.”

Many young actors, it should be said, have played older Shakespeare roles, such as King Lear, down the years.

Speaking to the BBC’s former arts editor Will Gompertz in April, the Lord of the Rings star joked: “I have played Gandalf who was over 7,000 years old. No-one said I was too young!”

“I can’t pretend I’m 20, no-one is going to believe it,” he explained. “But I can feel that I’m 20”.

The Independent‘s Paul Taylor, who awarded four stars, was so engrossed in the “electrically courageous” latest production of Hamlet that the age-gap between its star and lead character simply melted away.

“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,” wrote Taylor.

Age and gender-blind

“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.”

As well as being age-blind, the play – which has previously been performed by an all-female cast – is also totally gender-blind.

Last weekend, just days before opening night, two of its key actors, Steven Berkoff, who had been due to play Polonius, and actress Emmanuella Cole, who was to portray his son Laertes, both pulled out.

Ashley D Gayle took over from Cole, while Frances Barber stepped into Berkoff’s shoes

The Independent’s former sister paper, i News – which is now owned by JPIMedia Publications, which publishes The Daily Mail and Metro – was not as impressed as The Independent though, dishing out just two stars.

Despite Sir Ian’s obvious charms, reviewer Sam Marlowe found the play to be “incoherent” and “a haphazard mess”.

Sir Ian McKellen

image copyrightPA

“Gender-swapping is routine nowadays,” Marlowe noted. “A Hamlet played by a veteran of 82, however, is bold, and Sir Ian, for all his skill and charisma, never persuades us to forget his age. Nor does he access some elusive essence or fresh insight – though he’s too fine an actor for his performance to be without interest.”

She added: “Frances Barber’s silky, sleekly self-regarding Polonius offers light relief, and Ashley D Gayle’s impassioned Laertes shines. But despite all the talent involved, this is a haphazard mess that leaves you wondering what on earth you’ve just witnessed – and what were they thinking.”

‘A fascinating new perspective’

Sir Ian, evidently unconcerned by the age gap, also recently told Radio 4’s Front Row that he interpreted Hamlet as being bisexual – with reference to the character’s childhood friend and, he feels, possible former lover Rosencrantz.

Reviewing his efforts in the Mail Online, Patrick Marmion labelled the veteran’s re-working of Hamlet as being “mesmerising”.

“Once you suspend your disbelief, it is a fascinating new perspective on the Prince of Denmark,” he wrote.

“You may see more polished productions than this – it can be rough and thespy around the edges,” he added “But it is unmistakably an event. I doubt we will see its like again.”

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