12:39PM, Wednesday 28 July 2021
Sir Ian McKellen in a hoodie and trainers, Jenny Seagrove with hair like Princess Elsa from Frozen… if you want doublet down on a conventional Hamlet, get thee elsewhere.
This Elsinore may take a little while to get into, but you don’t have to work hard to suspend your disbelief, the performers will swiftly lift you.
The audience was palpably thrilled to be back at Windsor’s Theatre Royal. The auditorium was packed, including the two banks of seating on stage, but hush fell the instant the actors appeared.
Dressed in muted, jewel tones, the performers emerged from the darkness and the age-blind, colour-blind and gender-blind casting soon seemed inevitable. The post-lockdown wonder of seeing a large cast, indoors, was just a joy. In the ghost scene there was dry ice and the final scene left me with wet eyes, we were properly back at the theatre.
A couple of things jarred, Jenny Seagrove as Gertrude had a Danish accent which (while accurate in itself) seemed misplaced when everyone else spoke in pretty much RP. And Jonathan Hyde’s gold-buttoned blazer almost made him the Claudius of the golf club bar, though he rose above it.
But these are quibbles, the play unfolds through telling scenes, skilful performances and lots of laughter in Sean Mathias’s production. There is a lot to enjoy.
I loved the play within a play, and the way the players moved – Frances Barber is a compelling, confident Polonius and Alis Wyn Davies uses her singing skills beautifully as Ophelia. The bluesy grave song in the ‘poor Yorick’ scene is also lovely.
So many of the lines in Hamlet are so well known but McKellen’s phrasing makes them fresh and vital. His powerful, and often playful, presence, his physicality and his voice are tremendous, the heart of this show.
He last played the part in 1971, aged 31, but wasn’t happy with that performance. But sometimes, this time, it’s very good to go back.
Hamlet is on at Theatre Royal Windsor until September 25.