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Ian McKellen's Hamlet: Did critics smile and smile at the age-blind production?

The reviews are in

Ian McKellen and Jenny Seagrove in Hamlet
© Marc Brenner

Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage


"If only the production had been as sensational as the anticipation. When Hamlet, directed by Sean Mathias finally opened in sweltering heat, in a non-socially-distanced Edwardian playhouse, what the audience were presented with was a chance to watch one of the greatest actors of our age have another shot at a character whom he first played fifty years ago. And some decent performances around him. It was all right, but it didn't set the world alight.

"Ian McKellen remains the principal reason to see the show. His familiarity with the language of Shakespeare gives him the sense of living inside it, making it seem entirely natural as spoken English, lending each utterance a conversational feel that reaps many rich rewards. It is particularly effective in the soliloquies that have become over-familiar: his "To be or not to be" is delivered in discussion with Ben Allen's humane and attentive Horatio, reading from a book, making its statements casual and questioning: "What a piece of work is man" ends with every syllable of "quintessence" rolled around his mouth as if savouring the thought."

Ian McKellen as Hamlet
© Marc Brenner

Suzi Feay, Financial Times


"Given the chance, this Hamlet might have made a decent philosopher king. McKellen gives the soliloquies a fresh polish and a lick of wry humour; "To be or not to be" is delivered in a barber's chair; another speech is puffed out on an exercise bike. The 82-year-old actor doesn't exactly scamper across the stage, but it's still astonishing to think he played the same part 50 years ago."

"The bare-bones set and lighting indicate that Claudius isn't in it for the trappings. The only crown in sight is the Player King's. Modern dress renders the ghost — a hoary revenge cliché even in Shakespeare's day — problematic to decipher, as we hover between the Renaissance mindset and our own."

Paul Taylor, The Independent


"You might have thought that McKellen would give himself up anew to the demands of Hamlet by turning the production into a kind of self-reflexive one-man show – perhaps in the manner of Robert Lepage's Hamlet-based one-hander Elsinore – but nothing could be further from the truth. He is at once electrically courageous and unassuming."

"This is a production that has taken nothing for granted. While I was initially disappointed that they jettisoned the great opening scene on the battlements (surely one of the greatest opening scenes in world drama), I was enthralled by the decision, for example, that Gertrude and Claudius have no dastardly ground, but are living hand to mouth. Jenny Seagrove's Gertrude takes to drink because she is rattled by the inexplicability of what is going on."

Ian McKellen
© Marc Brenner

Nick Curtis, Evening Standard


"It's tempting to think that we're watching an ancient, demented Hamlet recalling a warped version of his past, especially in the disturbingly powerful scenes with his mother (Jenny Seagrove, 64) and his dead father (Francesca Annis, 76). But McKellen doesn't particularly act like an old man or – despite stripping to a singlet and mounting a Peloton bike at one point - try and convince us he's young. Instead, he incarnates the play's themes of artifice and posturing. His Hamlet is, basically, a poser."

"On a meta level, Mathias is exploring the very essence of theatre - pretense and the suspension of disbelief. But the execution is ragged. While most of the cast speaks received pronunciation, more or less, Gertrude is inexplicably German and Llinos Daniel's gravedigger stridently Welsh."

Arifa Akbar, `The Guardian


"Eccentric decisions include cutting up Hamlet's first, searing soliloquy: McKellen begins it, only to leave the stage and return to resume his thoughts while spinning on a stationary exercise bike. "To be or not to be" is later delivered at a barber's. If the point is that we have the deepest of thoughts in the most banal of places, these scenes still feel strained and removed from the rest of the play.

"For an age-blind production, Hamlet is primarily dressed for youth by costume designer Loren Elstein, wearing hoodies, woolly hats and trainers while others are in 1940s suits and dresses. "Hamlet is Shakespeare, is youth," wrote Virginia Woolf, but McKellen proves her wrong. His prince is sad without self-indulgence, his reflections an acceptance of impending mortality."

Tim Bano, The Stage


"Designer Lee Newby's Elsinore is a black space cut through with a gantry walkway, the one constant in a production that otherwise refuses to settle. Odd performance choices abound. Francesca Annis, despite her excellent ability to make sense of a line, goes full panto as the ghost of Hamlet's father. They might as well have stuck a white sheet over her head. Seagrove adopts an odd accent as Gertrude, which comes from no discernible nation on this planet."

"McKellen's Hamlet is deliberately our friend. He draws on all his grinning charm to chat his way into our confidence. He's not mad, that's perfectly clear – except for when he is. Because there are two moments when this scheming scamp of a prince loses control. First, in his confrontation with Gertrude, thrusting himself into Seagrove's face to hiss and shout. Second, at Ophelia's graveside, where he breaks down. Suddenly, the stiffness and careful precision fall away. It feels real and dangerous."

Clive Davis, The Times


"The play-within-a-play sequence has dream-like intensity. But the distractions mount up. Why is Jenny Seagrove, otherwise impressive as a sombre Gertrude, given a heavy Danish accent that makes her sound like Marlene Dietrich? Is it worth cutting the opening ghost scene and then having Francesca Annis make her brief appearance as a noisy apparition that would seem quite at home in a Harry Potter film? Does McKellen need to utter "To be, or not to be" while a barber waits to use electric clippers on him?"

"The odd lurches in tone break the flow. There was certainly more laughter this evening than you would expect. Perhaps it was something to do with the unfamiliar sensation of being back in a crowded theatre for the first time in months."

Sam Marlowe, The i


"Gender-swapping is routine nowadays. A Hamlet played by a veteran of 82, however, is bold, and Sir Ian, for all his skill and charisma, never persuades us to forget his age. Nor does he access some elusive essence or fresh insight – though he's too fine an actor for his performance to be without interest.

"But crucially, it's the centrepiece of a staging with no guiding vision, in which the actors – some of whom are in danger of being upstaged by their wigs – flounder. Watching it is weird: the characters share a stage, but never seem to inhabit the same world."