Sir Ian McKellen to play Hamlet in age-blind show | Theatre

The age of Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been the subject of much debate. But no one has mooted that he is 81.

Regardless, Sir Ian McKellen will play the role – normally a star vehicle for young actors – in an age-blind show set to be the first British theatre production to begin rehearsals following lockdown.

Adopting a “show must go on” spirit, rehearsals will begin on Monday even though none of the team have any idea when they will be able to stage the play in an actual theatre.

The performing arts is one of the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with warnings of a “cultural armageddon” without targeted help. Theatres remain dark – they are allowed to open from 4 July but not for live productions – and about 70% warn they will run out of money by the end of the year.

The new Hamlet will mean McKellen, 81, returns to a role he performed 50 years ago. It is produced by Bill Kenwright and directed by Sean Mathias as his first production in his inaugural season in charge of Theatre Royal Windsor.

Rehearsals will begin with strict measures in place around physical distancing, screening, hygiene and PPE.

Sir Ian McKellen, left, and Susan Fleetwood in Hamlet directed by Robert Chetwyn in 1971.
Sir Ian McKellen, left, and Susan Fleetwood in Hamlet directed by Robert Chetwyn in 1971. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy Stock Photo

Mathias said it was encouraging that they could at least begin work on the play, even though a performance date was unknown. “We walk a tightrope through the forest whilst we await news of when we may actually perform in front of a live audience, but it will be invigorating to leave the house and get into a rehearsal room and be a part of British theatre returning to the boards,” he said.

Hamlet is traditionally known as the most coveted role for younger actors – academics have debated whether the character is 30 as stated at one point in the play, or much younger as his characteristics seems to suggest – while King Lear, which McKellen has played three times, is the summit for older actors.

McKellen said: “I feel lucky to be working again, thanks to Bill Kenwright’s inspiring optimism and Sean Mathias’s invitation to re-examine Hamlet, 50 years on from my first go. So now we will meet again. Don’t know when, but do know where – Theatre Royal Windsor!”

Gender-blind casting, whether Glenda Jackson as King Lear or Maxine Peake as Hamlet, is an embedded part of theatre now. Age-blind casting, less so.

When Derek Jacobi played Mercutio in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 production of Romeo and Juliet, the Stage newspaper ran a poll on whether it should be more common. The result was 67% in favour and 33% against.

Kenwright is the chairman of Everton football club as well as being a leading theatre producer. He said: “A lot of planning, a great deal of determination – and, I must admit, some of the things I learnt prior to the return of football – have got us to the place where all things theatrical start.

“Nothing is more important than this country’s and indeed the world’s health and safety, so we are not ready to announce an opening night yet – but I’m a great believer in making a start if a start is possible, and in this instance it is.”

Although some television productions are not yet allowing actors over 70 back on to sets, producers are confident that all the safety bases will be covered in rehearsing the play.

Mathias and McKellen have worked together many times and were partners for 10 years in the 1980s. After Hamlet, McKellen will play Firs the elderly manservant in a new Windsor production of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.

The rehearsal announcement is a rare glimmer of positive news from an industry battered by the pandemic. Theatre Royal Plymouth this week became the latest arts organisation to begin redundancy consultations, with a warning of 100 jobs being lost. Even with 1 metre physical distancing, theatres cannot afford to reopen for performances without financial help.

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