Monday 12 February 2024

Hamlet - Review


Ian McKellen

Directed by Sean Mathias
Written by William Shakespeare
117 minutes

It was a bold move in 2021 for Sean Mathias to cast Ian McKellen as Hamlet in his production at Windsor’s Theatre Royal. Traditionally the role is played by a much younger man who needs to be a credible university student as well as one whose mother is still of an attractive re-marriageable age, and desirable to her former brother-in-law. In this iteration however McKellen was the oldest actor on the stage, boldly defying convention. The production attracted mixed reviews at the time, however it led to McKellen returning to the role at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2022 - in a completely separate dance-based production - and subsequently to the Bill Kenwright Company releasing Mathias’ work as a fully storyboarded full blown feature film.


This filmed take on Hamlet proves to be an inspirational revelation. Filmed in and around the Windsor theatre, Mathias has set the play across the stage, backstage and front-of-house areas of the venue, giving a meticulously re-imagined interpretation of the story.

Film and theatre are profoundly different media. The live performance demands our attention on a scene or tableau, possibly quite diverse in its panorama, and often far away from where the audience is seated. Cinema however, as Norma Desmond made clear in Sunset Boulevard, is all about the close-up. And Ian Mckellen as Hamlet, in close-up, is quite simply a masterclass. Few living actors have a mastery of Shakespeare’s verse that can match McKellen. His delivery of the prose, both the famously quotable stuff as well as the lesser-known lines is exquisite and even those familiar with the text will find new revelations in the story through McKellen’s delivery.

A decent production of Hamlet demands a cracking supporting cast and Mathias has rounded up most of his 2021 company to accompany Sir Ian. Jonathan Hyde is a suitably evil Claudius with Jenny Seagrove stepping up to the role of Gertrude. It is in the Gertrude/Hamlet interactions - notably Act 3’s closet scene - that the age-neutral casting is most put to the test, but Seagrove pulls it off and if her death a couple of acts later is perhaps a little hammed up, the pathos with which she describes Ophelia’s death, is exquisite.

Ian McKellen and Jenny Seagrove

Emmanuella Cole is a well cast gender-swapped Laertes, with Ben Allen also putting in a finely sympathetic shift as Horatio. Equally, Steven Berkoff’s Polonius is perfection in pomposity and Frances Barber delights as the First Player.

Amongst the supporting roles however it is Alis Wyn Davies who shines out as Ophelia. Frailty may very well be her name such is the carefully crafted fragility that defines her performance, with Davies bringing a light to the fair Ophelia that is rarely seen. Hers is a  gorgeous performance, which when her voice is married to Adam Cork’s music in her tragic mad scene, is lifted even higher.


Squeezing in at just under 2 hours, Mathias has trimmed the text with wisdom and sensitivity. Set in contemporary dress in a dystopian locked-down world, this is very much a Hamlet for the 21st Century with Lee Newby’s design work sitting well in the compressed settings of the Edwardian-age theatre. Neil Oseman’s photography is similarly ingenious, adding a profound depth to the story's imagery.

In cinemas for one night only on February 27th and while there will of course be future online streaming, if you are able to catch this on the big screen, just go!

Ian McKellen’s Hamlet is a must-see. His take on those famous speeches, in close-up, is unsurpassed. The rest is silence.

For a full listing of screenings click here

Ian McKellen

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