A Full House for an 82-Year-Old Hamlet

LONDON — If you’re going to fully reopen a theater in these edgy times, it helps to have an actor whose presence feels like an event. That’s absolutely the case at the elegant Theater Royal in Windsor, England, where Ian McKellen, 82, is currently playing Hamlet, of all roles, and will stay on into the fall in a new production of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” (“Hamlet” runs through Sept. 25.)

When the director Sean Mathias’s production started previews in June, coronavirus protocols in England required social distancing in playhouses, meaning numerous seats were left unsold. But those rules ended July 19, when the government rolled back restrictions on social contact. Theaters now have to choose for themselves whether to put their entire capacities on sale, and some smaller venues are still operating with caution by spacing seats out.

At the “Hamlet” matinee I attended, this was not the case, and a full and expectant house had gathered to see McKellen return to a role he first played a half-century ago. The demographics of the Windsor playgoing public skew older, and during a post-show question-and-answer session with the cast, one man in the audience recalled seeing McKellen’s previous run as literature’s most famous Dane, in the early 1970s. (The actor tackled a more age-appropriate Shakespeare tragedy, “King Lear,” on the West End in 2018.)

You might wonder how an octogenarian might inhabit the angst of a perpetual student who can’t shed the memory of his father or an unusual attachment to his mother. McKellen’s achievement is to render age irrelevant, so that we seem to be peering into the soul of a character this actor understands from the inside out. And as mortality rattles Hamlet more and more, it’s doubly moving to hear those lines spoken by an actor now in his ninth decade.

The production belongs to the here and now, and is presented on a multitiered, industrial-looking set with the actors in modern dress: Alis Wyn Davies’s Ophelia strums a guitar, and Jonathan Hyde’s excellent Claudius suggests a corporate apparatchik with his eye on the prize.

But it’s McKellen everyone has come to see, and the Tony-winning actor who found global renown in the “Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” movies doesn’t disappoint. As if taking a leaf from his character’s instruction to the players in Act III’s play within a play, he speaks Shakespeare’s verse “trippingly on the tongue,” so that the time-honored soliloquies become extensions of thought, rather than set pieces. I’ve rarely heard “To be, or not to be” communicated as easefully as here.

Not all the cast is at McKellen’s level, and there doesn’t appear to be much of an overarching vision. But whether riding an exercise bike or scaling the skeletal set, McKellen is always the nimblest presence; the actor’s the thing, and the audience made its appreciation thunderously clear.

I witnessed a comparable ovation at another full house recently, this time in the 2,300-seat London Coliseum, where the star attraction is the return of the English musical theater veteran Michael Ball, playing Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray” through Sept. 29. Ball won the 2008 Olivier Award for his performance as this demure, soft-spoken laundress when the Broadway hit first came to London, and his affection for the generous-hearted show seems only to have deepened since. A heartthrob back in the day, Ball dons Edna’s apron and slippers without any sidelong winks.

It is a gift of a part. Edna is a wife and mother in 1960s Baltimore who long ago made peace with the life she never got to lead. (“I wanted to be the biggest thing in brassieres,” she says, meaning designing, not washing and folding, them.) Imagine her surprise, then, when her feisty daughter, Tracy (a spirited Lizzie Bea), turns out to be a consciousness-raising rabble-rouser, railing against racial segregation.

Tracy’s transformation prompts her mother to unleash a previously unknown energy, and a dimpled Ball is a riot emerging, eyes gleaming, for the final number in a glittering pink party frock.

Addressing the audience after the curtain call, Ball sounded moved to see a near-capacity crowd again. No wonder he looked ready to shake and shimmy all night, or at least until Edna’s sequins fell off.

Social distancing was still the order of the day when I caught the Joseph Charlton two-hander “ANNA X,” which has just finished its run at the Harold Pinter Theater but will have five performances next week at the Lowry in Salford, near Manchester.

The director Daniel Raggett’s high-octane production showcases a 25-year-old talent, Emma Corrin, who has been lauded as Princess Diana in “The Crown” and is clearly due for a major career. “ANNA X” casts Corrin in a fictionalized version of a real-life Russian, Anna Sorokin, who cut a swath through New York society before serving time in prison for fraud.

Appearing alongside the engaging Nabhaan Rizwan as the ambitious techie, Ariel, whom Anna pulls into her alluring orbit, Corrin is both charismatic and inscrutable, as befits Anna’s shifting, twisted psyche. Let’s wish Corrin a return to the West End at a time when she, too, is allowed a full house.

Hamlet. Directed by Sean Mathias. Theater Royal Windsor, through Sept. 25.
Hairspray. Directed by Jack O’Brien. London Coliseum, through Sept. 29.
ANNA X. Directed by Daniel Raggett. The Lowry, Salford, Aug. 11-14.

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