Ian McKellen’s Hamlet loses two actors amid claims of bitter disagreement

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

An age- and gender-blind production of Hamlet starring Sir Ian McKellen will open this week without two of its actors amid claims of bitter disagreement and tensions.

The pandemic-delayed show is remarkable because it stars the 82-year-old McKellen in a role he last played 50 years ago, one that is normally a star vehicle for younger actors.

It has emerged that the actors Steven Berkoff, who plays Polonius, and Emmanuella Cole, who plays Polonius’s son Laertes, will not be part of the cast when the play opens this week.

The Mail on Sunday reported that the two actors had dropped out because of clashes that had taken place since rehearsals began. It said the row had left McKellen “under strain” and “in tears”.

The play’s director Sean Mathias told the Guardian that Berkoff had left because of scheduling issues. “We extended and he had clashes, he couldn’t do the extension.”

Because the same company will also go on to stage Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard “it seemed wiser to let him go now and bring someone else in. It was a pragmatic decision.”

Nevertheless, Berkoff is the subject of a complaint from Cole that is being processed by the union Equity. “I’m not part of that process … I’m not privy to any of that,” said Mathias. “Emmanuella hasn’t been in, so her understudy has been on.”

Mathias said claims that McKellen was under strain or in tears were wide of the mark. “We’re all under strain … there’s a pandemic and we’re making Hamlet. We’ve had four understudies on in the past week and I’ve had to rehearse a new Polonius [Frances Barber]… we’re all under strain. In tears? Absolutely not … a load of rubbish.”

He said there had been disagreements in rehearsals but that they were being blown up out of proportion. “Actors have disagreements all the time in productions and you try to work them out – and sometimes you don’t. The fact that neither of them are in the production at the moment is to do with other reasons,” he said.

A separate source said Cole had been given time off to attend a workshop at the National Theatre.

The play, which is Mathias’s first production as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Windsor, will have its first full-house audience on Monday night and its press night on Tuesday.

By convention, critics do not review previews as they are not meant to be the finished product, but the Daily Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, to the annoyance of producers, has reviewed it.

Last month, he praised McKellen’s performance as “remarkably coherent and compelling”, but also wrote: “The evening has its shortcomings and longueurs – Steven Berkoff’s starchy, militaristic Polonius could usefully remember to speak more trippingly.”

Berkoff has had a long career in theatre, television and film, familiar for his villainous roles in Hollywood movies such as Octopussy, Rambo: First Blood, Part II and Beverly Hills Cop.

In 2019, he took on perhaps the ultimate bad guy role in the form of Harvey Weinstein. His self-penned play was billed as going where no one dared, inside the mind of the disgraced movie mogul.

Giving the play two stars, the Guardian’s chief theatre critic Arifa Akbar said said it was a missed opportunity that offered little beyond what was known from headlines. She continued: “It is when he forgets his lines and riffs his apologies that we are reminded of Berkoff’s natural ease and charisma on stage.”

Berkoff confirmed to the Mail on Sunday that a complaint had been lodged against him.

Cole is an actor whose television work has included Hollyoaks and stage work Faustus: That Damned Woman at the Lyric Hammersmith. According to the Mail on Sunday, Cole felt her opinions were not listened to and that she was disrespected and marginalised.

Representatives for Berkoff and Cole were approached by the Guardian for comment.