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THEATRE How not to be Hamlet

Ian McKellen's portrayal of the Prince of Denmark demands a suspension of disbelief too far, says PETER MASON

Hamlet
Theatre Royal Windsor

OF ALL the questionable issues connected with this strange staging of Hamlet, perhaps the oddest is the casting of 82-year-old Ian McKellen as the lead. McKellen has many great talents but inviting him to portray himself as a man 50 years younger than himself is a horrible ask.

No amount of hoodies, track suits or slim-fit jeans can disguise the fact that as Hamlet he’s visibly much older than everyone else on stage, particularly his young lover Ophelia and even his mother Gertrude, played by 64-year-old Jenny Seagrove.

So while that's perhaps an interesting experiment in asking the audience to suspend its disbelief, it’s also an unreasonable one.

McKellen is spritely and spirited in his role but in his valiant attempts to portray a young prince’s tortured, indecisive rebellion he almost inevitably ends up looking like an old man who’s losing his marbles.

With that dysfunctional dilemma at its heart, director Sean Mathias’s production never has a chance of getting off the ground.

And there are other faults, including a confusing decision to set the tragedy in an unidentifiable epoch, with a mish-mash of internally conflicting costumes and an uninspiring iron-girdered set that’s hemmed in by members of the audience sitting on stage.

Further indulgences — McKellen delivers soliloquies while riding an exercise bike or sitting in a barber’s chair — are equally unfathomable.

Finding themselves lost in an inexplicable nothingness, the actors seem lacking in conviction and in the first half some of the dialogue is difficult to hear.

While the second section picks up nicely in volume and intensity, with strong performances by Ashley D Gayle as Laertes and Alis Wyn Davies as Ophelia, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that Mathias’s obtuse approach has somehow unsettled the cast and undermined their confidence.

With the sore thumb of McKellen’s age sticking out obtrusively, they are unable resolve that particular fatal flaw in their performances.

Runs until 25 September, box office: theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk

 

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