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Hamlet review: ‘Sir Ian McKellen delivers a nuanced performance in an unconventional production’

The production at the Theatre Royal in Windsor runs till 25 September.

By Alastair James

Words: Alastair James; Pictures: Marc Brenner

Sitting down to watch Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Windsor I found myself asking, why? Why revive Hamlet for the umpteenth time? Why, when there are so many other Shakespeare plays that don’t get the same top-billing or are held in as high esteem as Shakespeare’s longest play, put on another production of the infamous tragedy?

The answer in this case is Sir Ian McKellen.

Sir Ian McKellen as Hamlet and Ben Allen as Horatio (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Sir Ian triumphs in a role he first played 50 years ago on tour in the UK, Europe, and on the West End. Famed as one of the great Shakespearean actors, it’s clear why he is counted among that number. Throughout his performance as the eponymous Hamlet, there is a sense that he knows this play inside and out and the tragic character through and through.

There is subtlety and nuance to his performance that speaks to his experience with roles of this sort and where some actors might seem showboat-y in such a role, Sir Ian’s performance is delicate and ultimately human.

Sir Ian McKellen as Hamlet and Jenny Seagrove as Gertrude (Photo: Marc Brenner)

Elsewhere, the cast delivers decent performances: Frances Barber in particular entertains as Polonius. It’s worth mentioning that Barber entered the production in July following the departure of two actors.

Jonathan Hyde as Claudius, Ben Allen as Horatio give good performances, while Jenny Seagrove as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, and Ashley D Gayle’s Laertes at times feel forced. Alis Wyn Davies’ Ophelia feels underdeveloped and at points irrelevant – although that feels like more of an issue with the production and material rather than the actress.

As for the production, it seems… confused. The age, gender, and colour-blind casting is cause for celebration, but the non-specific time period (ever seen Hamlet with Converse costuming?) is never really explained and doesn’t add a new dynamic to what is by now a well-trodden plot. As director Sean Mathias says in his spiel in the programme, he wanted to produce plays “unconventionally”, and that is certainly an apt description here.

But perhaps in this day and age where things are more fluid and less strictly defined than they once were, we should be more open to this kind of abstract and less literal take on a Shakespeare classic…

Overall, the play is enjoyable, if at times hard to understand. It rests on the shoulders of its esteemed lead, who comfortably carries us through the proceedings.

Rating: 3/5

Hamlet is playing at the Royal Theatre in Windsor until 25 September 2021. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.