Ian McKellen’s Hamlet review: Muddled with sparks of brilliance

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Ian McKellen’s Hamlet review: Muddled with sparks of brilliance

REVIEW OF HAMLET: 3 STARS Despite flashes of brilliance, Ian McKellen’s Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor is frustratingly confused. Unfortunately, something isn’t quite right in this Danish state.

With gender and color-blind casting becoming increasingly common in the theatre, Ian McKellen takes on Hamlet at the age of 82. When he jumps on an exercise bike for an early soliloquy, any questions about his physical health are quickly (and somewhat arbitrarily) dispelled. He rushes up and down ladders throughout, before donning full fencing gear for the climactic showdown. It takes a while to suspend disbelief, but by the conclusion, I was completely immersed. The overarching issue with this production is the question of ‘immersed in what?’ I’d want to add a few more details: where, when, and why.

McKellen plays the Danish prince, who is grieving the death of his father and enraged that he is the only one who knows his uncle Claudius is the killer, with a world-weary despondency. In laughing discussions and eventually passionate denunciations, his contempt for the deceit or blindness of others around him wounds. The downplayed throwaway delivery of certain critical internal moments did not persuade me. Before the clippers start buzzing, a barber’s chair nonchalantly muses, ‘To be or not to be.’ I couldn’t hear sections of other sentences in other places.

It’s a nuanced interpretation, combining an old man’s intellectual skepticism about human nature’s frailties with rage for a damaged world. But, like the rest of the show, it feels like an unfinished thought, as if it’s missing something. Of course, that may be the state of this Danish royal, but it leaves the spectator in a bit of a quandary.

Francesca Annis, who plays The Ghost and groans ghoulishly with ramped-up reverb echoes, is only on for a few spectacular (if very panto) moments. Frances Barber is a late substitute for Steven Berkoff, who left the show abruptly. He and Emmanuela Cole exited stage left just days before the show’s opening, possibly pursued by the fabled bear. As the interfering and unscrupulous Polonius, Barber provides wit and a striking ringing clarity.

Llinos Daniel delights as a perfectly deadpan gravedigger, admirably matched by Alison Halstead there and in the hilariously hammy “play within a play” Hamlet produces to expose Claudius’ guilt in a generally good cast.

The setting is deliberately ambiguous, with current clothing and a focus on RP.

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