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Ian McKellen in HAMLET at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This, admittedly, is a ‘for the record’ review: the run has sold out in any event. But as it became clear that the one question, above all others, that I would be asked on my return to London, would be whether I managed to get to Ashton Hall to see a new production of Hamlet starring Ian McKellen, I braved the rainy weather, a far cry from the warm sunshine at the start of the Fringe, to see what the fuss was all about. McKellen gets almost all the lines in the show, and all the title character’s soliloquies are there – though not all of them are presented in full. The rest, so to speak, is silence.

Ian McKellen in HAMLETThe movements of the Edinburgh Festival Ballet Company are very obviously significant in the “What a piece of work is man!” monologue from Act II Scene II. I realise, of course, that there isn’t an Act II Scene II in this reimagined ‘performance concept’ (as the show’s programme calls it) – a more traditional rendering of the play could go on for three and a half hours, or even a tad longer: this one runs without an interval for an hour and fifteen minutes.

It’s impossible to observe proceedings without, as I had wanted to do, relying on previous knowledge of the play. The dancing is nice to see, but the only ‘wow’ moment came towards the end in what would have been Act V Scene II, in the duel between Hamlet (in the form of dancer Johan Christensen: the audience sees double with Christensen and McKellen dressed the same and playing the same character) and Laertes (Ricki Bertoni). Rosencrantz (Adam Bell) and Guildenstern (Scott Matthews) appear as bouncing bunny rabbits. Why? I still haven’t worked that one out.

Some of the ensemble’s movements, however, were more humorous than intended for me, because they brought to mind the music video of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, a song that had renewed attention thanks to the fourth season of Netflix’s Stranger Things. There are a lot of costume changes, or at least it feels there are, and when the dancers fill the aisles around the stage, but not the stage itself, it just looks weird. It’s also a pity that the venue’s acoustics don’t make McKellen’s speeches, delivered with typical authoritative gravitas, sound as clear as they should be.

It’s a fairly minimalist set, which made me wonder if Claudius (Chauncey Parsons), having taken the crown, had stolen the furniture while he was at it. There are some benefits to this reinterpretation – Polonius (Mitchell Green) is deprived of, well, all his lines, which means nobody can get frustrated with him for going on and on. It also means I technically can’t quote him saying, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t”, even if that line best sums up what is a very different and yet remarkably faithful production.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Ian McKellen and Peter Schaufuss will collaborate and perform together at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the world premiere of Hamlet with a whole new performance concept, adapted from William Shakespeare’s play.

Hamlet with Ian McKellen

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