The presence of our greatest Shakespearean actor is a gift to the festival, as it rebuilds itself post-Covid. I just wish he were here in a better show than this, which boils down Shakespeare’s longest play into a 75-minute ballet.
There are no missteps in director-choreographer Peter Schaufuss’s smoothly elegant dances, but his direction is full of them. Lacking any real tragic feeling, at once simplistic and baffling, this is a Hamlet with one big idea and no small ones.
The big idea is to give bargain-seeking Fringe punters two Princes for the price of one. McKellen shares the role with dancer Yohan Christensen, a young Dane of noble visage and tragic bearing. McKellen speaks, Christensen twirls; none of the other dancers have a voice (barring Ophelia’s song). For five wonderful minutes, I thought this might work.
The play opens with McKellen’s disembodied echo, calling “Who’s there?” from each corner of the theatre in turn, while Horatio swerves, frightened, looking for its source.
Aha, I thought: The spirit! The oaken age in McKellen’s voice suddenly made sense – this speaker was clearly not Barnardo, so who could it be? Surely this was Old Hamlet the king, calling to young Hamlet, the son. On McKellen's first appearance, he lingered upstairs, ignored by the chorus, a spectral presence. That promising notion dissolved as soon as an armour-clad ghost walked dully in through the stage’s backdrop (a curtain of chainmail, lit with projections of castle walls). So, if McKellen's not the father’s shade, who is he?
In one scene – a pas de trois with Ophelia – the two princes appear to represent clashing sides of his psyche. But for the rest of the show, McKellen acts interchangeably with Christensen, and even attempts the odd cautious dance-move. There’s no clear logic underpinning the split: Gertrude might take young Hamlet by the arm, or old Hamlet, or both. It doesn’t matter.
The main directorial principle seems to be “let’s put McKellen onstage whenever we can, and have Christensen dance the energetic bits”. Coherence has been swept aside by the thrill of having a living legend to work with. The same muddle occurs with the speeches. If McKellen spoke only the soliloquies, as is mostly the case, we might assume he represents Hamlet’s inner monologue. But he’s given stray bits of dialogue too (“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…”), seemingly just for the pleasure of hearing him say as many famous lines as possible.
To be fair, that pleasure is undeniable. McKellen can deliver a line he’s spoken a thousand times – “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” – and still find the unexpected in it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Hamlet speak of “the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to” with so much unlikely levity. At 83, his voice is still an extraordinary instrument.
But it is an instrument poorly served by the acoustics of Ashton Hall, a new 400-seat venue, and intermittently muffled by the pushy sound-design and naff score, its sweeping gestures better suited to a superhero movie. It’s a typical choice that, scarcely two seconds after the line “the rest is silence”, the sentimental music blares up once more.
McKellen on stage isn’t a rarity – this time last year, he was in a different Hamlet at Windsor – but it seems increasingly likely that each new production might be his last. For that reason this Hamlet is still worth seeing, and for that reason alone.
Until Aug 28: edfringe.com