Sir Ian McKellen is an actor of exceptional talent. Most people know him as Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and many know that his reputation as a Shakespearean actor is almost as long as all those “Lord of the Rings” movies strung together.
Many years ago, he produced a TV program that ran on PBS called “Acting Shakespeare.” It was like sitting in on a master class for free with a great teacher. I highly recommend it for anyone who is somewhat Shakespeare-phobic — you can probably find it somewhere online or through a streaming service. It is worth looking up.
McKellen has always been an “out of the box” presenter of Shakespeare. His movie of Richard III is situated in a 20th-century fascist superstate. I usually prefer my Shakespeare with period-piece accuracy, but I have seen my share of productions set in 1920s Chicago or modern-day New York, and after getting used to the non sequiturs of the costuming, I enjoyed them.
In 1936, Orson Welles produced a version of “Macbeth” in Harlem with an all African American cast and placed the play in a mystical Caribbean setting, substituting voodoo priestesses for the more traditional witches. I would have paid to see that.
So, hearing that McKellen was mounting a new production of “Hamlet” piqued my interest — until I heard it was a production starring McKellen in the title role.
I fully understand and accept the concept of suspension of disbelief when it comes to pop culture and classic literature. I know that when I see a production of “Hamlet” I am required to “buy” the concept that Hamlet’s father has returned from the grave to urge his son to punish those who so enthusiastically sent him to an untimely death. But expecting me to accept an 82-year-old actor portraying a character with serious “daddy” and “mommy” issues is a thing not to be devoutly wished.
A review of this British production praised McKellen and the entire cast and production for their bold “age-blind” casting decisions. It further enthusiastically claimed how this version of “Hamlet” “rocks everything we assume about ourselves.” Ah, I said to myself as I read that seemingly simple and harmless statement — there’s the rub.
In a world where female Olympic athletes are fined for dressing more modestly, it should come as no surprise that we as a culture have been rocking a lot of things to the point of capsizing lately. You can make Hamlet a Dane, an American, an African, anything you want. But when you portray him as an octogenarian, you have altered his nature. A very large swath of Western culture holds altering one’s very own nature with the same gravitas as ordering a chai latte instead of your usual grande mocha whatever.
There is only so much suspension of disbelief our brains can take, and I believe an 80-something Hamlet exists outside those parameters. The Church disagrees with the “conventional wisdom” that our natures are bendable and changeable and comes to this conclusion with faith and reason.
Shakespeare concurs. “Men may construe things after their fashion, clear from the purpose of the things themselves.
No amount of reordering the externals of our natures will alter what lies beneath either. Aging is inevitable. So are the bodies we are born with, if we want to be honest with ourselves on a strictly scientific level.
When faith and reason combine, a powerful statement of fact comes out on the right-hand side of the equation. When those immutable facts are encased with grace, compassion, love, and respect, natures may not be altered, but lives certainly can be.