Hamlet, review: Ian McKellen’s ‘age-blind’ prince can’t fool the audience – however good his stamina

Ian McKellen in Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor - Dee McCourt
Ian McKellen in Hamlet at Theatre Royal Windsor - Dee McCourt

In a catastrophic week for theatre, which saw the curtain come back down on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s £6 million musical, Cinderella, one knight of the realm took to the stage in what felt like an act of defiance against the Government’s inflexible isolation rules – which has led to the scuppering of entire productions.

Sir Ian McKellen, 82, is playing Hamlet – reckless, you might think, but also an act of chutzpah you can only admire. The actor proved extraordinarily lithe, and as he ran up the metal steps in Sean Mathias’s quasi-industrial production, the years seemed to fall away. Did this aged Hamlet work? Physically, yes: McKellen didn’t need the exercise bike or shell-capped trainers to accentuate the portrait of youth.

But his voice played against that illusion: rich and oaky, sometimes pedagogic. This at least gave new meaning to certain lines. For example, “What a piece of work is a man” felt imbued with life’s essential sadness, something that can only come with old age. Yet, equally often, there were missed opportunities. The soliloquy “To be or not to be” felt thrown away.

And while I often bought into the age-blind casting, it also yielded problems, not least in Hamlet’s scenes with Ophelia (a guitar-strumming Alis Wyn Davies). I can see why a creative decision to desexualise the relationship might have been taken, given the real-life age-gap of more than a few decades, but it also dampens the fire that should rage between them. “Get thee to a nunnery” was delivered like a village elder scorning a local harlot – and Hamlet’s sacrifice of love for revenge was rendered meaningless.

I found it difficult to find a coherent thesis in this production. What was Mathias trying to say? That our relationship to the world, our individual truth (to coin a modish phrase) is constantly being sought? That we never really change? In the words of Rosencrantz: “They say an old man is twice a child.” Well, McKellen’s performance suggested this effectively, but if we’re meant to buy into an age-blind concept, surely this line becomes irrelevant?

Adverse publicity has suggested some difficulties behind the scenes. There were reportedly tensions between Steven Berkoff and Emmanuella Cole (playing Polonius and Laertes, respectively), and both have now left the production. Their replacements, Frances Barber and Ashley D Gayle, are settling in well. Barber has teased out a new side to the garrulous bore: her Polonius is part-martinet, part Mrs Bennet fussing over her children. Were each actor in this production to bring the same level of attention, things would greatly improve. Oh, and who made the bizarre decision to saddle Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude with a Danish accent?

Despite the madness, however, Mathias’s production is oddly conventional, and when we have been treated in recent years to such expert deconstructions as Robert Icke’s 2017 Almeida production, one feels a little shortchanged. I was fascinated by McKellen’s Hamlet, but I hope this is not his farewell to theatre.

Until September 25. Tickets: 01753 853 888; theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk