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The Role of a Lifetime? It’s Never Too Late

Anna Stephen discusses whether Ian McKellen's age blind casting in the iconic role of Hamlet will be a standing ovation or fall flat.

While actors profit from an ability to be malleable, it is often the case that they are stuck playing the roles they are ‘right for’. Or so it seemed. Sir Ian McKellen being cast as Hamlet at 81 proves that fitting the actor to the part is a process easily reversed.

McKellen, one of the veteran theatre greats, said in a 2017 interview that he’d ‘probably’ never act in Shakespeare again. King Lear had been his crowning achievement: a world tour of recurring violent deaths and anguished howling, to bid adieu to a decades-long partnership with the Bard. A member of the RSC since 1974 (and making his Shakespeare debut nearly a decade previously), McKellen has given us Romeo, Richard III, and a chillingly vulnerable Macbeth. He has also played Hamlet before, at the tender age of 31.

Now, with theatres throwing open their doors, the rejuvenated not-so-juvenile Hamlet will hit the Theatre Royal Windsor this summer, directed by Sean Mathias. But how will this age-blind production work? Will McKellen attune himself to the mannerisms of a younger man? Or will Hamlet be absorbed into the likeness of a legendary actor? How will the Prince’s turbulent relationships with his elders play out? Do any of these questions matter? Hamlet’s age is often debated: some are firmly on team ‘angsty university student’, but the majority go by the evidence of the gravedigger scene and will calmly tell you that he is 30. It’s worth remembering that Shakespeare wrote for the talents of his acting troupe and Hamlet was a role for Richard Burbage, aged 32 when the play premiered.

In many ways, Hamlet’s youth is vital, dividing him from the older figures in his life and rendering his ontological meditations all the more disquieting. McKellen himself described him as ‘a boy who knows exactly what has to be done but lacks the manly resources to do it.’ However, he added, ‘Shakespeare’s heroes all go on such painful journeys to maturity.’ This is exactly it. Maturity is not necessarily determined by age. The role of Hamlet has been hailed as the most challenging: an actor’s greatest test, less a part, and more a life experience. It has been tackled by stalwart thespians and fresh faces of television alike. Let’s not forget that Hamlet himself is an actor. Playing a man obsessed with acting obscures the identity of the ‘real character’, and complicates the very concept of theatre. This is the beauty of the play. It’s five acts about acting – and if anyone has experience in this field, it’s McKellen.

But does age-blind casting actually make a difference to the story?  Age profoundly shapes what we can say about our experiences, capabilities and relationships. An older Hamlet is in danger of becoming dissociated from his textual origins. Watching an octogenarian interact with the ghost of his father, we might be more prone to see a conversation between equals. The voice of an older man delivering each soliloquy intrinsically possesses a kind of wisdom. As we imagine a more senior actor clutching a skull and raving about death, the scene becomes significantly more morbid. But haven’t adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays long thrown off the shackles of age, race, and gender?

In Olivier’s film version, he cast an actress half his age to play his mother. A 2010 production at the Bristol Old Vic had Romeo and Juliet as two geriatrics in their retirement home. A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck could just as easily be played by a 90-year-old woman as by the typically bare-chested, glassy-eyed young man. Shakespeare is diverse and adaptable. It’s how you can flick from a Victorian Measure for Measure to a camp 80s Much Ado to the latest RSC Hamlet, with Paapa Essiedu the first black actor to play the role at the company. It’s how the play has made the screen, the opera, been endlessly parodied, turned into video games and memorialised in Disney canon as The Lion King. Hamlet was first played by a woman in 1796. 1921 saw silent film actress Asta Nielsen star as a cross-dressing female Prince of Denmark. The play’s the thing: a springboard from which to launch in all directions.

However, blind casting is a different kind of adaptation. Not addressing McKellen’s age means a whole dimension falls away from the story. Surely nothing can ever be completely ‘blind’? Every time Sherlock Holmes and James Bond are recast, new debates spring up. Discrimination in the acting community is sadly ever-present. Actresses turning 40 should not have to fear being told to get Botox, or receive three scripts in one year inviting them to play a witch (the latter happened to Meryl Streep). Blind casting ultimately depends on the role. Of course, the stage is a place for representation and diversity. But how is this possible if remaining fixedly ‘blind’ means a refusal to acknowledge age, race, and gender? Such important elements of identity should not be swept under the carpet.

Perhaps we shouldn’t consider what will be lost or gained, but what will be different. I won’t pretend I’m not wary. But Hamlet’s function in his play is entirely different to King Lear’s function in his. Lear’s collapse into grief is public and exposed. Hamlet isolates himself; he creeps on the fringes; he is not anchored to events but withdraws from them. I would hope to see McKellen capture the character’s dancing quality: mercurial, impulsive, yet bizarrely stagnant. Hamlet is a mess of paradoxes, like all of us. Anyone could take his place (as critic William Hazlitt said two hundred years ago, ‘It is we who are Hamlet’). He is a character that transcends dimensions. The more diversity in the actors who play him, the more ways we can watch our experience as humans play out on stage. Shakespeare’s characters are what can be made of them. I’m excited to see what happens.

Image credit: StarGlade via Pixabay.

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