The Scottish Mail on Sunday
This drama’s hit a bit of a crisis – but ‘age-blind’ Sir Ian is still a great Dane at 82
Dennis Potter’s rock ’n’ roll musical fantasy
‘Introducing Ewan McGregor,’ it says in the opening titles of this 1993 Channel 4 musical drama series written by the late Dennis Potter. The boy McGregor (right, with Louise Germaine), then a promising young Scottish actor not yet out of drama college, hasn’t done too badly for himself. He plays Mick Hopper who, on the eve of the Suez Crisis, is completing his national service working for military intelligence in a Whitehall office. He whiles away the time creating elaborate fantasies featuring his colleagues and rock ’n’ roll tunes. Also starring Douglas Henshall and Roy Hudd, this was the last series by Potter that was broadcast during his lifetime. BritBox, from Thursday
W hat a drama the Covid-battered theatre has become. Shows are on, then off again for no real rhyme or reason. The opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella was postponed (yet again) this week. That has left the spotlight on Hamlet at Windsor’s plucky Theatre Royal.
Aged 82, Ian McKellen’s sunset Hamlet comes a full half-century on from his last appearance as the dithering Dane. He doesn’t see any problem; he’s been saying for ages that he is far too young to play the 7,000-year-old Gandalf. The idea of ‘age-blind’ and ‘gender-blind’ casting is a theatre-industry fudge. Theatregoers are tolerant, not blind. Judi Dench learnt that the hard way when she overheard a pair of ladies walking home in front of her give a curt verdict on her performance: ‘Fat ankles.’
McKellen’s voice is far from gone, though words do get swallowed. Sick of heart his Hamlet may be, but he is evidently matchfit and seemingly heatproof. He cavorts about the metal gantry over the stage and he delivers his ‘too solid flesh’ speech on an exercise bike. It’s a performance that screams ‘Never retire!’ If this gruelling role doesn’t kill him, nothing will.
The cast is full of seasoned troupers. Francesca Annis’s Ghost wittily makes ‘murder most foul’ sound like ‘Morrrrdor most foul’. Frances Barber is terrific, too, as a substitute Polonius (after the actors playing Polonius and Laertes recently quit the show with rumours of daggers drawn if not plunged). Jonathan Hyde is a reptile-smooth Claudius and Jenny Seagrove is his queen with a heavy Scandi accent to remind us we’re in Denmark.
If familiar lines occasionally seem missing it’s because Shakespeare texts, like Covid, have variants. Scenes have been freely swapped about. Overall, the youngsters don’t gel with Hamlet. His encounters with Ophelia (Alis Wyn Davies strumming a guitar like a Glastonbury rock chick) are meant to be sexually electric but look cross and awkward. And not a lot is conjured in the prince’s friendship with young Ben Allen’s Horatio. The Players, however, strike sparks.
The prince’s final sword fight – athletic, no joints creaking – with Laertes (Ashley D. Gayle) is a great set-piece. The sorrows suffuse the stage – and the experience. We cannot know where we are headed beyond this life. McKellen’s doomed Hamlet is shot through, movingly, with a total conviction of that uncertainty.
Sean Mathias’s production has flashes of brilliance but it’s often chaotic, dramatically daft, even rambling. Yet the big picture is what matters. This Hamlet is being staged with a whopping great star against all the odds. The crowd in Windsor seemed all too grateful.