At the Theatre Royal Windsor, Sir Ian McKellen plays Hamlet.
There’s no reason why Hamlet shouldn’t be portrayed by an 82-year-old guy, given that he’s been played by everyone from a 12-year-old kid (Master William Betty) to a 55-year-old woman (Sarah Bernhardt) over the ages.
Sir Ian McKellen gives this Hamlet the gravitas of a world-weary scholar, a very mature learner. He inhabits the character with exquisite ease, 50 years after his last effort. McKellen’s Great Dane is a man of reason compelled to confront his philosophy because he isn’t prone to inebriated outbursts of youth. He has a very student-like air about him, with his black singlet and exercise bicycle, as well as a natty scarf slung around his neck.
After all, theatre is about creating illusions, and this age/color/gender-blind show is a clear representation of our jumbled, jumbled times.
McKellen exudes such confidence that his age fades away after roughly five minutes. However, the early promise of a Gothic, cartoon-like persona (he first appears in Victorian funeral regalia of top hat, dark spectacles, and a frock coat, as in an Edward Gorey illustration) is quickly dispelled.
In a semi-modernized play staged on a gantry-like set that resembles a provincial railway station more than Elsinore Castle, exercise bikes, hoodies, and knives take over.
Francesca Annis gives an excellent performance as Hamlet’s father’s ghost, although she is underutilized.
Following Steven Berkoff’s tumultuous departure, Frances Barber brightens things up considerably as a late replacement for Polonius.
Jenny Seagrove’s Gertrude is a depiction of Teutonic starchiness, while Jonathan Hyde’s Claudius is silky-smooth.
Alis Wyn Davies’ Ophelia, played as a Courtney Love-style rock vocalist, didn’t quite convince me, but maybe I’m just old-fashioned.
Director Sean Mathias, having assembled a purposefully varied cast, loses his chance to do anything exceptional with it (apart from a fixation with hair and wigs), and the play’s energy is sapped by the lack of an unifying vision, despite the blazing heat on press night.
The Players’ scenes and the graveyard scene, on the other hand, are outliers that raise things up a notch. McKellen has the night all to himself, and properly so. I just wish he had a better-tuned vehicle to back him up.
Hamlet runs through September 25 at the Theatre Royal Windsor; tickets are available by calling 01753 853 888.