“It may well be that the producers have simply gone back and got themselves the actual Hamlet. Christensen’s likeness to the troubled young prince in most minds’ eyes is so exact.”
Walking out of Sir Ian McKellen’s ‘Hamlet’ at the end of one of the most brilliant, startling, life-changing 75mins happening this EdFringe, you’d be forgiven for wondering what’s going wrong when so much has just gone spectacularly right. Why has the press reception been so negative? “Not since Joey redecorated his apartment in TV’s ‘Friends’ has an actor made such poor choices … eccentric staging … entirely lacking in wit … an aesthetic straight out of the 1950s.” “Crass” the hacks call this production, before ever so humbly asking you to donate towards keeping their unsustainable behemoth belchers of bourgeois banalities afloat.
Shakespeare was first and foremost… now I don’t want to shock you so take a breath, have a seat… Shakespeare was FIRST AND FOREMOST a businessman. A highly successful producer and creator, the profits from whose art enabled him to retire into the second largest house in his hometown. I can’t think of a production of which the Swan of Avon would have approved of more, not simply for its beauty, its talent, its invention – but because it’s making serious dosh towards that most ultra-Shakespearian concept, building a playhouse.
This compact retelling of that most celebrated chronicle of personal grief and royal revenge is a resurrection of a concept staged 12 years ago. Then a recording of John Gielgud’s ‘The Ages of Man’ was used alongside the classical ballet mime. Now we have another great luminary of stage and screen, a bemedaled veteran of EdFringe, live on stage, persona in persona. McKellen shares the role of Hamlet with Johan Christensen – or at least that’s what the program says. McKellen knows David Tennant and probably has access to Dr Who’s Tardis. It may well be that the producers have simply gone back and got themselves the actual Hamlet. Christensen’s likeness to the troubled young prince in most minds’ eyes is so exact.
You’ve not got a ‘Hamlet’ if you’ve not got chemistry between Gertrude and Claudius. Caroline Rees and Chauncey Parsons have got chemistry by the lab full. There are more sparks between them than if several swarms of bees with angle grinders for bums were to settle on the Eiffel Tower. Together they set the powerplay undercurrent that underpins all else. Their relationship is the counterbalance to that of McKellen, the aulder Hamlet who never was or could be, and Christensen’s youth who age shall not weary, nor the years condemn.
The (other) undisputed star of the show is Katie Rose as Ophelia. We don’t live in an age where it would be appropriate to write that she is more beautiful than the yellow glow of a taxi light coming down an empty street long after hours, so I won’t. Or that she’s more graceful than a… I actually can’t think of anything more graceful than Katie Rose right now, so I’ll have to come back to this line. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment by this early alumnus of Edinburgh Festival Ballet that when you’ve got two Hamlets for the price of one, you’ve got a performer who can tip the scales of the storytelling so decisively in Ophelia’s favour.
McKellen is McKellen, but McKellen is being McKellen in a totally new way. Here is an artist on top form. His choices are brave and bold. He open-handedly shares the stage in a way that would earn him a year’s worth of ‘I Made Good Choices’ stickers from Daughter 2.0’s nursery school. He truly is a national treasure. He should avoid visiting Edinburgh Castle in case they try to lock him up with the Stone of Destiny.
For the afterparty, we exit the Playfairian splendour of the Ashton Hall and enter the more intimate space that has been created directly below. We find a grand piano, set with silver candlesticks, behind which a group of mannequins are showcasing the costumier’s art. This is all framed by long red curtains and what might have been a rather cold, utilitarian area is instead a perfect setting for the jolly Shakespearian cabaret that is to follow. Come for the Q&A with one of planet Earth’s most celebrated thespians, stay for the ivory-tinkling mastery of Edinburgh’s own Richard Lewis accompanied by two of the company as backing vocals.
The songs chosen all have roots in the Shakespearian canon. There’s Elton John’s ‘The King Must Die’ (I bet Elton wishes he could play piano as well as Richard Lewis); a song from ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet (based, as one extremely handsome and be-bearded audience member in blue sunglasses, correctly answers on ‘The Tempest’; as well as a host of hits from a myriad of popular songbooks. Lewis is a charming, witty, and lively host. His adapted version of Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is a party piece that needs to be seen across the Shakespearian landscape this EdFringe.
These are the early days of Peter Schaufuss’ vision for Saint Stephens and the air crackles with the potential about to be unleashed. There are three Edinburgh tickets I’d like in my collection. First, to the opening night of John Home’s 1756 production of his own Douglas – a Kirk minister writing for the stage how scandalous! Second, a ticket to “Everyman” performed at Dunfermline Abbey during the inaugural EdFringe because there weren’t enough venues in Scotland’s capital. Third, a ticket to the first production in Peter Schaufuss’ superb new venue at Saint Stephens, the morning star heralding a new dawn rising above this, the eternal capital of Fringe Theatre.