Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Robert Chetwyn

Ian McKellen in the role of Prince Hamlet

UK/European Tour

23 March 1971 - 2 October 1971


Words from Ian McKellen

"I'm always doubtful when an actor is dubbed 'The Hamlet of his generation', particularly as no-one ever wrote it about mine! Mind you, the competition was considerable: there were ten British Princes of Denmark in 1971. I was 31, the same age as Hamlet by the end of the play. Robert Chetwyn (the director who had got me to whisper Henry V at Ipswich) persuaded me that we shouldn't tell the Olivier story of a man who couldn't make up his mind. Our Hamlet was a boy who knows exactly what has to be done but lacks the manly resources to do it. He grows up, until finally he is ready and the readiness is all. Shakespeare's heroes all go on such painful journeys to maturity. I wore pants tucked into boots and a sweater under a fringed leather jacket. We had a psychedelic, multi-faceted Ghost, reflected in the mirrors of the set. This modern-looking Hamlet didn't much appeal to the critics, which led to a fruitless correspondence with a couple of them. Critics may well be right, when they say that a performance has failed (or succeeded) but they are invariably hopeless in analysing why. One of them damned us all: 'This is a Wolfit production, without a Wolfit'. What I suppose he meant was that the ideal HAMLET would be packed with great performances and, indeed, the play could come startlingly to life if the actors playing, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras, were all talented enough to be cast as the Prince himself. That would be to realise the impossible dream - a company of equal talents." — From the programme for ACTING SHAKESPEARE

Comments and Reviews


Nottingham Playhouse: 23-27 March

Theatre Royal, Newscastle-upon-Tyne: 29 March - 3 April

His Majesty's, Aberdeen: 5-10 April

King's, Edinburgh: 12-17 April

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Grand, Wolverhampton

New, Cardiff

Theatre Royal, Brighton

Rome; Antwerp;Cologne;The Hague;

Theater an der Wien, Vienna: 1-3 June

Schauspielhaus, Zurich: 5-6 June

Grand, Leeds: 26-31 July
Cambridge Theatre, London: 5 August - 2 October
Televised on BBC 2 in March 1972, directed by David Giles

The 'Olivier from Wigan' finds that after an hour on stage as Hamlet he is all too ready for the death scene
Ian McKellen joins the Shakespearian acting elite
By Peter Waymaric

On the first night of Hamlet at the Nottingham Playhouse last week, Robert Chetwyn, the director, went into the lavatory and heard his production being dismissed as "damned teenage twaddle". Ian McKellen, who is 30 and plays Hamlet, was pleased to be thought of as a teenager. After the third performance about 100 young people stood shouting and clapping their approval and this pleased Mr. McKellen even more. "It looks as if we have a controversial Hamlet, he said. "Now we will have to be ready for the national critics not liking it".
Hamlet is Mr. McKellen's biggest challenge since his Edward II and Richard II sent the press into raptures two years ago, putting him with the great Shakespearian actors and giving him labels such as "The new Olivier from Wigan" (where Mr. McKellen was brought up). He says that the praise was overdone and he is waiting for the reaction: "They are going to say: ‘We knew it could not last. We knew it was a trick'."
Mr. McKellen says he thinks the Hamlet is the best thing he has done and whatever the critics say it is the audience that matters. On the evidence of advance bookings enthusiasm is building up nicely. Every performance at Nottingham was sold out in January and people have been writing to Mr McKellen from other towns where the production is playing, begging for tickets.
Mr. McKellen had several offers to do Hamlet but chose to remain faithful to the touring Prospect Company which gave him the opportunity with Richard and Edward. So instead of the London opening he could have had, he will spend the coming weeks treading the boards at Aberdeen, Glasgow and Wolverhampton.
There is a definite idealism about this but also a genuine appreciation of provincial audiences, as shown in the case of two middle-aged ladies who went up to Mr. McKellen at Nottingham to say how much they had enjoyed the play.
"They had never seen Shakespeare in the theatre and they came because they had seen Richard II on 'the box'.
"I asked whether they understood the story all right. One of them said she bought the book and could not make anything of it. But having seen the play she understood it perfectly."
It is appropriate that Hamlet has opened in Nottingham where Mr. McKellen's career was effectively launched eight years ago when he played in Coriolanus under Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Soon afterwards his first West End appearance in A Scent of Flowers won an award and an invitation from Sir Laurence Olivier to join the National Theatre. But he resigned after nine months.
"There were a number of actors of my age and range in the company and there was a sense of competition which I as a socialist did not find helpful. I thought I would have better opportunities elsewhere." Now he is much better known than any of those National Theatre rivals.
He had two more successes in the West End, played in Arnold Wesker's Their Very Own and Golden City and then found the Prospect Company. He is proud of the fact that whatever fame he has earned has come almost entirely from the reaction of provincial theatre audiences. Nor, unlike many of his contemporaries, has he been much attracted by films and television in spite of the much greater financial rewards.
He says: "I used to take it personally that I was never asked to do films but the big enjoyment there is not for the actors but for directors and administrators. These are the people in charge. In the theatre the people in charge in the end are the actors, and their relationship with the audience is what makes their success or failure. What keeps the theatre pure is that it is not a commodity to be reproduced and marketed throughout the world." And so to Hamlet. Mr. McKellen says they have no fancy interpretation to offer; the play is quite difficult enough without that. But this is broadly how they're seeing it: Hamlet is first shown as an extremely depressed little boy finding everything possible wrong with the world. Then he sees the ghost of his father which, Mr McKellen says, is a "mind-blowing experience"; in the main body of the play Hamlet shows himself ready and fitted for the job in hand.
Mr. McKellen says he finds playing Hamlet more exhausting than he thought he would." There is a passage where you are on stage for an hour. You are the machine for every theme and you have to fuel that machine somehow. Then right at the end you have got to do all that bloody fighting. You are certainly ready for death after that." It takes him three hours to unwind after each performance.
The production is going to Vienna and Rome in the summer and probably to eastern Europe and will later be seen on television. I asked Mr. McKellen what he was doing after that: "I hadn't even thought about it. Nothing at all. What a depressing question."

Hamlet on television
by Peter Fiddick

There would be little point in my merely adding my voice to the considerable chorus of praise which has greeted the Prospect Productions Hamlet and Ian McKellen's Hamlet within it. It was evident from Saturday night's version of it on BBC-2 that both were substantial achievements. Hamlet is a very big play, perfection is a very difficult thing, and like several one has seen, this did bits of it better than ever, though without necessarily leaving one thinking "That was the greatest." What I was left thinking, indeed, was probably a little unfair on the overall effect, since the end was curiously flawed - a fight and deaths so emphatically melodramatic that it was a surprise to see William Nobbs name on the credits, and a sense of uncertainty in handling Fortinbras's closing scene.

Still, it was overall a distinguished piece or work, with a fine Prince, a solid Claudius from John Woodvine, moments of splendour from Faith Brook's Gertrude, and from Susan Fleetwood an Ophelia that must join her totally contrasting performance as the passionate acid-thrower in last week's "Country Matters" in at last imprinting her talents on television producers' memories.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of the night was the strictly television one. The actors, after all, had mostly had months of work in their parts. David Giles, directing for the BBC, had the unenviable task of making Robert Chetwyn's already successful stage production into television, and his success was virtually complete.

The most obviously technical device was the bold approach to the soliloquies, shot in very tight close-up, often with McKellen's mouth out of view as he spoke, giving a much stronger effect of internalisation than the prerecorded voice over an unspeaking head we see so much these days. But this was just a part - one always had a sense of something that had been done for the cameras, and from the performers as well.

I will never say a bad word against ATV for doing the play in their two-hour version with Richard Chamberlain but I did say at the time that serialisation might have been the better television answer. Shakespeare's was best of all.


Banner photo: Prince Hamlet


Full Cast List