Hamlet with Ian McKellen

Aug 7 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆     Slightly underwhelming

Saint Stephens Stockbridge (Venue 166): Tue 2 – Sun 28 August 2022
Review by Suzanne O’Brien

With a performance concept by Peter Schaufuss and Ian McKellen there was a high level of expectation surrounding this world premiere of a new version of Hamlet.

However Hamlet with Ian McKellen – the marriage between dance, mime and spoken word at the newly re-vamped Ashton Hall in St Stephens, Stockbridge – does not run smooth.

Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen who share the role of Hamlet. Pic: Devin de Vil

In this highly abridged ballet version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ian McKellen at the age of 83 plays the starring role. Apart from atmospheric background noise from the courtiers made up of members of the Edinburgh Festival Ballet Company, McKellen is the sole voice of the production. And what a voice it is.

McKellen performs some of Hamlet’s most well-known soliloquies, monologues and lines which are interspersed throughout the ballet. The emotion that McKellen exudes is simply masterful, although the audio could be improved as the sound levels seemed slightly off.

Regardless, it comes as no surprise that it is Ian McKellen’s performance that is the standout.

Despite this, his role is not clear and does not have a focused intention. McKellen appears to play the role of Hamlet’s voice, conscience and inner monologue, alongside the young Johan Christensen who plays Hamlet’s physical embodiement.

Ian McKellen with Johan Christensen who shares the role of Hamlet. Pic Devin de Vil.

It makes little sense as they appear on the stage together with McKellen sometimes being involved in the movement and being acknowledged by other characters, yet other times he just watches on as an observer between speeches.

In addition, the mix between ballet, movement and speech does not merge seamlessly. Director and Choreographer Peter Schaufuss fails to instil real emotion and there is a rushed feeling throughout as he tries to squeeze the entire story into just 75 minutes.

As a result the substance is lost and it is difficult to feel any emotional connection. Much of the dance is performed with a clear intention but over exaggerated emotions and movements make it feel forced and stilted. It seems like in some cases the dancers are going through the motions rather than feeling the emotion, which is a real shame given their obvious natural talent.

There is hope when the pace begins to pick up as Hamlet’s madness is revealed and the play inside the play is performed for the King. This is an abundance of colour and craziness. There is an energy to it which elevates the piece to the next level. Unfortunately this momentum soon fizzles out again.

Ian McKellen as Hamlet. Pic: Devin de Vil

Some performances are worth particular mention, especially that of Katie Rose who takes on the role of Ophelia. Her lyrical movements express an endearing sophistication and naivety. The relationship between her and young Hamlet is perhaps the clearest and most sincere as it blossoms and crumbles. Although, once again, their relationship seems rushed and doesn’t do justice to the original writing.

The performance of Caroline Rees as Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is also successful as she portrays the complexities of the character with great attention to detail.

For those unfamiliar with Hamlet it will be difficult to follow – it is likely they will have to play a game of who’s who, to begin with. The focus is on the two Hamlets for the majority of the piece resulting in the audience hardly learning about any of the other characters.

The production is worth seeing for the very reason it sold out in the first instance – Sir Ian McKellen. Hearing his iconic voice resound throughout Saint Stephens is utterly spellbinding. However, if you are looking for a traditional version of the classic or a piece that does Shakespeare’s play justice this may leave you frustrated.

Running time: One hour 15 minutes (No interval)
St Stephens Stockbridge (Ashton Hall), 105 St Stephen Street, EH3 5AB (Venue 166)
Tuesday 2 – Sunday 28 August 2022.
Daily: 19:00 (not Mons); Mats Fri/Sat: 16:00.
Tickets and details: Book here.

Johan Christensen and Ian McKellen who share the role of Hamlet. Pic: Devin de Vil


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