HAMLET at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“a fitting expression of the artistry of two men who have had long and extraordinary careers”
There is so much to admire and celebrate about the achievements of Ian McKellen, actor, and Peter Schaufuss, dancer, and even William Shakespeare, dramatist, for that matter. It seems like a no-brainer, therefore, to put all three together for a seventy five minute performance in the visually stunning setting of Ashton Hall in St. Stephen’s Theatre in Edinburgh. And it is an extraordinary experience, but not the kind you might be anticipating.
Firstly, there is the building. Approaching St Stephens from the street, it rises up before you like a sanctified apparition of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. The warm welcome the staff extend as you enter, contrasts nicely with the austere lines of the interiors, which set designer Ben Rogers wisely imitates in his bare bones setting for this production of Hamlet. The whole production is a feast for the eyes as you’d expect. It is a ballet, after all. The only words spoken on stage come from McKellen, who has lost none of his ability to take any overly familiar word, and imbue it with fresh meaning.
Filing into the auditorium, you are met with black backdrops, a white textured tapestry, and two banks of shrouded figures with tall Jacobean hats and dim candles glowing in their hands. It’s an arresting image, and sets the mood. The music, composed by Ethan Lewis Maltby, adds to the sense of impending doom. When the figures begin at last to move, and circle the performance space, you know you are about to witness tragedy. On this stage, therefore, it is possible to meet a bifurcated Hamlet, composed equally of dancer Johan Christiansen, and actor Ian McKellen. Dressed alike, varying from matching beanies, to multicolored costumes more reminiscent of court jesters than princes, the costumes aren’t always successful, but they do allow freedom of movement as McKellen, the older, wiser prince, tries to marshal the energy of Christiansen, his much younger, and much more impetuous, self. What gradually emerges in this version of Hamlet then, is a series of vignettes; dancing punctuated by the spoken word. It’s a chance to watch a series of beautiful pas de deux between Hamlet and Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude, dressed in scarlet, are also an eye-catching couple, and command attention at the centre of their court. But without Shakespeare’s words, it would be difficult to see where this tragedy is going. So much is cut from the script, and that can be frustrating. Fortunately, McKellen is on stage most of the time to guide you through the action.
As drama, this production of Hamlet is obviously incomplete. It is more successful as ballet, and the dancers of the Edinburgh Festival Ballet, under the direction of Peter Schaufuss, are beautifully choreographed. The movements are a satisfying combination of athleticism and fluidity. The grace comes just as much from the stillness as the movement, which suits a great tragedy. This production of Hamlet does indeed have a sense of ripeness—a fitting expression of the artistry of two men who have had long and extraordinary careers.
But that, paradoxically, is where the McKellen/Schaufuss Hamlet parts company with Shakespeare’s. Because we shouldn’t forget that the tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of a young man who never gets to become the king he should have been. And it’s the older generation, sadly, that has created the mess the prince has to clean up. McKellen’s Hamlet in this production seems to get that, but like the ghost of his father, can only prompt from the sidelines. And the energy of youth, without the experience of age, can only do so much.
See this version of Hamlet for its austere beauty. You’ll be haunted by the images and the sounds. Ghosts abound.
Reviewed 5th August 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Devin de Vil
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