Thursday, 22 July 2021

REVIEW: Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor

Sir Ian McKellen has rightly been acclaimed as the greatest living British stage actor with an unenviable track record of success and compelling performances. We have watched him many times over the years from the ground-breaking Bent in 1979 and sat on stage in the Olivier for his Coriolanus in 1984 through more recently to his utterly enthralling King Lear at the Duke of York and his extraordinary one-man show On Stage that toured the country. There can be no doubting his love of performance, his energy, and his desire to entertain and move audiences. So, it was with a great deal of anticipation that we booked to see him return to Hamlet at the Theatre Royal Windsor on 'Freedom day', 19th July 2021.

Having been to several socially distanced indoor and outdoor shows over the last twelve months and enjoyed the extra space and reassurance of anti-Covid measures within the venues it came as something of an unpleasant shock to experience queuing to enter the venue for bag searches, queuing to have the tickets checked in the confined foyer space and a very full house (including an audience packed on the stage close to the performers) squeezed into the tight legroom of the Royal Stalls. And of course, that forgotten memory of those in the middle of the row being last to leave the bar before each act. Add to that the sweltering heat of the evening and one can’t help thinking we have the perfect condition for Jonathan Van Tam’s three C’s for Covid transmission. It was an added distraction to our enjoyment of the show, and one has to open that this production particularly with its 82-year-old star avoid the risk of closure that so many West End shows are suffering.

Sean Mathias’s production sets out to break boundaries to be experimental and unconventional in so many aspects. The casting is gender, colour and age blind but since we all know the characters already, we accept that easily. The period is timeless with costumes that hint at any period in the 20th century and Hamlet dressed for much as a youth of the 21st Century. The staging is minimalist and theatrical setting the action on a stage with the flies’ ropes on show, a large central staircase, and overhead walkways with traps on the stage floor. There are few props or furnishing although the show opening has the cast under umbrellas and Hamlet shows off his fitness on an exercise bike. The lighting is dramatic with plenty of white spotlights that pierce through the darkness to illuminate the performers and then a bank of fluorescents to flood the stage in the bright glare. There is a jarring discordant metallic underscore that fills the auditorium during changes of scene. We are left with no doubt that this is a fresh modern interpretation of the famous play which has given the English language so many sayings and quotes but none of it really enhances the performances and simply says we are different because we want to be.

Of course, the play is the thing that matters, and Hamlet is a huge part with over three times the number of lines of the next largest character, so the show revolves around McKellen. He starts as a Victorian undertaker with a wonderful floppy grey wig, strips down to his black vest to exercise before delivering his most famous speech “to be or not to be” in a barber before his hair is shaved off and ends the show in full white fencing garb. He has tremendous stage presence, energetically bounds around the stage and up and downstairs and ladders. Is he descending into madness or orchestrating a vengeful plot? Despite appearances, he seems to be plotting revenge. He delivers this all in his wonderful distinctive voice although occasionally in his youthful rush we do lose some of his words.

The supporting company is strong. Jonathan Hyde is magnificent as Claudius creating a powerful devious figure with great strength and clarity. Frances Barber (reportedly a late replacement) is a joy as Polonius striding around the stage with confidence and some humour until she is killed all too early in the second half! Francesca Annis makes a strong eerie cameo appearance as the ghost of his father with forceful delivery of the lines. Jenny Seagrove appears as Gertrude with a rather obvious and odd Danish accent (the only character to adopt a Scandinavian voice). Amongst the younger cast members Alis Wyn Davies plays the tragic Ophelia in a glorious red wig and carrying a guitar to good effect, Ben Allen is a reliable Horatio and Llinos Daniel has some fun as a Welsh gravedigger.

Having been to Kronborg Castle in Denmark, the real-life location of Shakespeare’s Elsinore I would have loved to have seen this cast in the open-air courtyard of this imposing building with a cool breeze off the Baltic and heard the declamatory style of delivery echoing off the walls but on a hot crowded night in the tired Windsor Theatre Royal, I found it all a bit overwhelming and McKellen fell short of his usual immaculate high standards. Perhaps as the Covid fears reduce and the disruptive cast changes recede in the memory he will settle into another memorable role. If ever there was a case for capturing a production for streaming, this could be it, especially if the Queen would let them cross the road to shoot inside the Windsor Castle courtyard.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Stalls, Row P | Price of Ticket: £55

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