Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Chetwyn
Ian McKellen in the role of Prince Hamlet
23 March 1971 - 2 October 1971
Words from Ian McKellen
After the double success of Richard 2 & Edward 2, I said yes immediately when Prospect Theatre invited me to join them on tour again, this time as Hamlet. It had never been an ambition, though I didn't share Peter O'Toole's view (disclosed to me in his Stratford dressing room late 1950s) that playing him was not much more rewarding than an exercise in masturbation. 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 in UK 1971, when other Princes of Denmark included Alan Bates and Richard Chamberlain. I was 31, the same age as Hamlet by the end of the play.
Who to direct? Toby Robertson (Prospect's main man) suggested himself. I countered with Robert Chetwyn, who at Ipswich had directed me as Henry 5, Luther and Comic Chinese Policeman in the annual pantomime. Toby without a murmur withdrew. Bob's first appointee was Michael Annals, the National Theatre's star designer, to do our set and costumes. A distinguished cast was assembled.
Bob and I talked before rehearsals and he persuaded me that we shouldn't tell the Olivier story of "a man who couldn't make up his mind." Our Hamlet was a youngster 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. Many of Shakespeare's heroes go on such painful journeys to maturity.
I wore pants tucked into boots and a woollen sweater under a fringed leather jacket. We had a psychedelic, multi-faceted Ghost, reflected in the mirrors of Annals' impressionistic set."Had I ever taken drugs?" Bob and his partner the writer Howard Schumann asked. I hadn't: So a couple of joints were delivered and I did my best to feel a little of the intensity which Hamlet feels when his father comes back from the dead.
Bob had other bright ideas. Like King Claudius, Queen Gertrude should be a drinker and ironically die by drinking her husband's poison. Faith Brook lived in her own sozzled royal world of regret and confusion and you could see why Hamlet might love her and want to protect her.
Claudius was the doughty Ronald Lewis, though when he occasionally took an unexplained night off, his understudy was Tim Piggott-Smith in one of his first professional jobs. Ever-dependable Tim also took over as Laertes during the engagement, which took us 'round the UK and then to the Cambridge Theatre in London.
Our West End opening was attended by Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, renowned theatre historians, whose unique archive of programmes, photographs and other ephemera is now held by Bristol University. They had written 19 theatre books including a pictorial record of Hamlet Through the Ages. When I clambered back to my dressing-room, they were waiting, cheery and voluble as ever. "Congratulations! You are our 73rd Hamlet!" cried Ray. "Yes," added Joe, chuckling, "and we can remember something about every one of them. For instance, John Neville's Hamlet had a little hole in his tights" (pointing to his own crotch) "right there!"
Others, including too many critics, were less enthusiastic. One of the pains of being a drama critic must be the number of Hamlets that have to be regularly endured. So I didn't take personally those smarty-pants condemnations like the one with which Harold Hobson ended his critique in the Sunday Times. "The best thing about Ian McKellen's Hamlet is his curtain call": Not, I believed, the view of our regional audiences who were less familiar with the play than Sir Harold. In Aberdeen, a girl of about 14 was waiting at the stage-door still shaking from the thrill of seeing the play and its multiple deaths for the first time. She had waited to check that I was still alive.
In Wales, I shared digs with old friends Susan Fleetwood and Julian Curry (Ophelia and Horatio). The roast lamb devoured and well into the Pinot noir, my mates broached the tricky subject of Hamlet's pauses, that they claimed were getting longer each night. "ME pausing! It's everybody else who needs to get a move on!" So they played a sound tape that had been recorded that evening to prove their case. It took me less than 10 seconds to admit I was wrong and the next night, I managed to remove many minutes of silence from my performance, to everyone's satisfaction.
There was an eventful tour across major cities in Europe. In Rome, the performance was delayed while the audience took its time to arrive. I'd been warned that they might be late but not that they would talk to each other throughout the play, with the exception of Hamlet's soliloquies, when the keener ones would stand in the aisles to take my photograph. At the first night I was introduced (and fell for) Peter Chatel, a German actor of my age, working in Italy and recently out of an Italian gaol, awaiting a trial for possessing cannabis. Also locked-up was a cardinal, convicted of purloining funds from the Vatican Bank. Peter asked him if he was guilty. "Put it this way" his Excellency confessed: "when I get out of here, I'm going to retire to Switzerland." Peter himself was released without trial through the good services of Willy Brandt, whom he had publically supported in his election for the Presidency of West Germany. I was soon a beneficiary of this world of intrigue and rule-breaking.
The night before I was due to fly with the company to Vienna and a performance the same night at the Theatre an der Wien, Peter and I overslept. He raced his rattly Volkswagen through the early morning rush hour in the unlikely hope I might catch the plane. We made it to the airport, after departure time, with Peter distributing liras and shouting, to anyone who would listen, that I had to get to Vienna, even bribing an official to drive me across the tarmac to where the plane was, thank goodness, still on the runway. Prospect's director, Toby Robertson meanwhile explained his dilemma to the captain, who obligingly declared "Amleto senza il principe? Impossibile!" He turned off the engine until I arrived.
Back home with more than a hundred Hamlets behind me, there were nights at the Cambridge Theatre when I needed a spur to go on. I would peep (as I still often do) at the audience through an obliging hole in the front of house curtain, to remind myself of the obvious, that it was worth doing the show since so many individuals had paid and turned up to see it. One evening, Guildenstern was also spying but with other motives. If he spotted an attractive woman in the front stalls, at the end of the show, already half-dressed in his day clothes under his costume, he would rush through the stage door to await the emergence of his lucky choice. He would hand her a copy of Shakespeare's love sonnets with the seductive whisper "Tonight it was all just for you" and then rush away to cycle home and to wait. In the book, the beauty would find the actor's name and the number of his telephone. Guildenstern waited for it to ring. "It does about one in ten times — not bad eh?"
Late in the day, nearly 50 years on, I've discovered the New York Times' review, penned by the English exile Clive Barnes, the Butcher of Broadway. One evening after playing The Promise on Broadway, I spent an instructive few hours while Clive explained his critical method. He marked his reviews from "Rave" to its opposite, careful always to supply at least one quotable compliment to keep his name posted outside grateful theatres. Despite the misspelling of McKellen I cherish his review, clearly not a "Rave" but nor is it quite the opposite. The sweet irony is that, after Hamlet, I left Prospect to co-found The Actors' Company, an experiment in theatre democracy which was all about not trying to be a star. — Ian McKellen, London, August 2020