Hamlet review – Ian McKellen holds court in a silly version of The Bard | Edinburgh Festival 2022

MCould we be missing some of Hamlet’s advice to gamers? Have Shakespeare’s words of wisdom been lost over the years? Perhaps, for example, there was a bit that said, “Whatever you do, don’t try this as a narrative ballet – even when you have a knight of the realm in the cast.”

Such a trick would have spared us this eccentric staging by director and choreographer Peter Schaufuss, whose Edinburgh Festival Ballet has taken up residence in a freshly outfitted St Stephens. Its big draw, of course, is Sir Ian McKellen, who first played Hamlet at the Edinburgh King’s in 1971.

Now 83, he is a bit old for the student prince, despite his recent starring role in a blind production at the Theater Royal, Windsor. He would make a ballet dancer even less likely. Instead, he bravely shows up to deliver a greatest hits medley of Hamlet speeches, while dancer Johan Christensen, in matching costume, mimes his way through a 75-minute version of the tragedy.

Ian McKellen as Hamlet. Photography: Devin de Vil

McKellen, predictably, gives the part the full orotund treatment, his resonant voice bearing the weight of glum old age, rather than brash youth, while a floppy-haired Christensen writhes on the big push scene. Good for him to continue to treat the fringe as a place for experimentation, but it’s Shakespeare boiling in the bag with all the nutrients sucked out.

McKellen’s speeches aside, the rest, as we should have anticipated, is silence. The great Schaufuss house does everything in mime, each emotion signaled, each gesture underlined. You get the high-contrast plot points, but no textual subtlety and no idea why such a pantomimic version should be told.

Completely lacking in wit (and I’m including a bouncy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that), it has an aesthetic straight out of the 1950s – all doublet and pipe, moody poses and bombastic score. The chorus trots on with deplorable enthusiasm while the solos, with their flowing arms, high kicks and billowing skirts, could have been taken from a Kate Bush video. The closing fight is refreshingly dynamic, but it comes too late to make up for the grossness of the business.

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