Ian McKellen’s age-defying Hamlet is a sensation in every sense of the word. It blends a lifetime of talent and technique with splashy novelty and the conscious exercise of star power to jolt theatre back to life. Throwing new light on a supremely challenging role, aged 82, in the first major play to open to a full audience since March 2020, is a tremendous achievement.
He’s a vigorous if not dynamic Dane, speaking the verse beautifully, almost mournfully, but is also drily funny. The soliloquies are riveting. It’s a privilege to watch and hear him. True, Sean Mathias’s production, set on a largely bare stage with a battlement gantry, never quite gets us to a place where age and gender cease to matter. But despite countless Covid holdups and the late departure of two actors in pivotal parts, it’s pretty darn fluent.
It’s tempting to think that we’re watching an ancient, demented Hamlet recalling a warped version of his past, especially in the disturbingly powerful scenes with his mother (Jenny Seagrove, 64) and his dead father (Francesca Annis, 76). But McKellen doesn’t particularly act like an old man or – despite stripping to a singlet and mounting a Peloton bike at one point – try and convince us he’s young. Instead, he incarnates the play’s themes of artifice and posturing. His Hamlet is, basically, a poser.
We first see him in foppish mourning clothes with swooshy white hair. He switches to trainers, sweatpants and a near-skinhead crop during “to be, or not to be” but continues to pose as a lover, an avenger, a fighter. Everyone is pretending here, from his smarmy, murderous uncle Claudius (Jonathan Hyde) to his school friends. When Hamlet rips the wig off Seagrove’s Gertrude, he strips away her self-deceit. Conversely, Alis Wyn Davis’s Ophelia – unwisely imagined here as a stroppy pub singer – shaves her head when she loses her mind.
McKellen is ‘a sensation in every sense of the word’ as Hamlet
On a meta level, Mathias is exploring the very essence of theatre – pretense and the suspension of disbelief. But the execution is ragged. While most of the cast speaks received pronunciation, more or less, Gertrude is inexplicably German and Llinos Daniel’s gravedigger stridently Welsh. Annis and Frances Barber (a late, excellent replacement for Steven Berkoff) play male parts as men, but the gravedigger’s gender is switched – pronouns she/her. In a world where everything is supposedly fluid, crass specifics stick out.
It doesn’t really matter though. No one’s here for the concept. We’ve come to see England’s greatest living classical actor – and Magneto, and Gandalf – take on a part that he last played in 1971, in the middle of a pandemic, at an age when most of us would be thinking about slippers rather than swordfights. And he does not disappoint.