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‘Hamlet with Ian McKellen’ review

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • Ashton Hall
  • 3 out of 5 stars
Hamlet with Ian McKellen, 2022
Photo by Devin de Vil

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Sir Ian gets stuck into the action – and the big speeches – in this breezy new dance version of Shakespeare’s masterpiece

If I could just review the ‘…with Ian McKellen’ bit, this dance version of ‘Hamlet’ would be a straight-up five stars. Frankly, it’s just great to see the 83-year-old living legend gamely muck in at the Fringe for the full three-and-half-weeks, in an intimate-ish 500-seat theatre, in a slightly loopy role as, um… Hamlet’s inner monologue..? From the show description I’d thought he’d just be speaking a bit of verse from the wings, but instead he forms a partnership with dancer Johan Christensen (Hamlet’s, uh, inner dancer?) to provide a sort of onstage manifestation of what’s going on in Hamlet’s troubled soul. Sir Ian stays busy, with all the big monologues, multiple costume changes, and even some physical business: at the risk of patronising octogenarians everywhere, the fact that age hasn’t visible slowed him down even slightly is just really nice to see.

The ‘Hamlet’ bit is more mixed. As with I imagine much of the likely audience, I’m not really a dance expert. But from my limited understanding, director Peter Schaufuss’s choreography is more entertaining than boundary-pushing. In other words, it’s accessible, with lots of nice touches: I liked the intense dervishy whirling of Christensen’s solos, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s brief but genuinely funny bunny hopping and Ethan Lewis Maltby’s metronomic, string and drum-based score. 

However, it’s a pretty basic, pretty literal run through the plot of ‘Hamlet’, condensing it to just over an hour (a third of the play’s length) and offering no special fresh insight or take on it. I realise I’m being a bit 'theatre guy’ here, but ‘Hamlet’ is such a towering work – the meaning of which has been pored over at such enormous length – that distilling it down to a quick dance through the main beats feels pretty superfluous.

Of course, that’s where McKellen comes in: it’s clearly not ‘Hamlet’ without ‘to be or not be’. To be honest, though, isolated bits of Shakespeare’s verse don’t give you a great sense of the story, or involve you in the character emotionally. McKellen’s sonorous, wintry delivery is tremendous, of course. But he’s hampered by slightly iffy acoustics, and what he’s doing doesn’t feel joined up to Christensen’s much more intense and furious physical interpretation.

It’s still a very enjoyable show, especially in the context of the rough and readiness of the Fringe. Yes, at £30 a ticket it’s pretty steep, but the high production values and large company justify it, and I think having a big A-lister draw is probably good for the Fringe eco-system generally. It’s clearly not the single show McKellen will be remembered for, but it’s a cool thing for him to do with his summer - and it gives hope that there’s more stage work in him yet.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Ashton Hall
St Stephen Street
£30. Runs 1hr 15min

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