Hamlet review – Ian McKellen holds court in a dumb-ballet take on the Bard

Ashton Hall, St Stephens, Edinburgh
McKellen is the only speaker in Peter Schaufuss’s eccentric but witless adaptation of Hamlet as narrative ballet

Might we be missing some of Hamlet’s advice to the players? Did Shakespeare’s words of wisdom get lost over the years? Perhaps, for example, there was a bit that went: “Whatever you do, don’t try this as narrative ballet – even when you’ve got a knight of the realm in the cast.”

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

Now at 83, he is a little on the old side for the student prince, despite his recent starring role in an age-blind production at the Theatre Royal, Windsor. He would make an even less likely classical dancer. Instead, he gamely turns up to deliver a greatest-hits mix of Hamlet’s speeches, while dancer Johan Christensen, in matching costume, mimes his way through a 75-minute version of the tragedy.

Ian McKellen as Hamlet in patchwork top, orange trousers and blue beanie hit, sat on the floor of the Ashton Hall stage
Ian McKellen as Hamlet. Photograph: Devin de Vil

McKellen, as you would expect, gives the part the full orotund treatment, his echoing voice carrying the weight of morose old age, rather than impetuous youth, while a floppy-haired Christensen writhes about the big thrust stage. Good on him for continuing to treat the fringe as a place for experiment, but this is boil-in-the-bag Shakespeare with all the nutrients sucked out.

Aside from McKellen’s speeches, the rest, as we should have predicted, is silence. The large Schaufuss company does the whole thing in mime, every emotion signalled, every gesture underscored. You get the high-contrast plot points, but none of the textual subtlety and no sense of why such a pantomimic version should be told.

Entirely lacking in wit (and I include a bouncing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that), it has an aesthetic straight out of the 1950s – all doublet and hose, brooding poses and bombastic score. The chorus trots around with folderol enthusiasm while the solos, with their flowing arms, high kicks and billowing skirts, could have been lifted from a Kate Bush video. The closing fight is refreshingly dynamic, but it comes too late to offset the enterprise’s crassness.


Mark Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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