Ian McKellen is the world’s oldest Hamlet. But did Shakespeare ever want his stars to act their age?

Published in The i July 20, 2021

It is 50 years since Ian McKellen last played Hamlet – a stretch of time itself greater than the age of most actors who play Shakespeare’s “sweet prince”. At 82, Sir Ian makes history as the oldest actor to have a stab at the part, in an age-blind production by Sean Mathias at the Theatre Royal Windsor.

Hamlet is codified in our minds as a young man’s role: the Prince of Denmark is, after all, a student. It is associated with the ascent, or arrival, of hot young talent – whether that’s Ben Whishaw making his name in the part or Kenneth Branagh and Benedict Cumberbatch seeking to cement theirs.

McKellen’s casting might seem perverse, then, mere box office bait. Questions such as “to be or not to be?” surely take on a different tenor when you’re undeniably considerably closer to not-being.

Yet theatre is not an imitation of reality, and Shakespeare of all things surely need not be hidebound by naturalism. The play starts with a ghost, for heaven’s sake.

As McKellen said in an interview on BBC Radio 4 recently: “When you come see me you won’t see an old man pretending to be a young man.” Rather he strives for some essence of the part.

Actors matching their characters doesn’t seem to have been important in Shakespeare’s era – hardly surprising, given female parts had to be played by men. If you can suspend your disbelief over a teenage boy playing Gertrude or Cleopatra, then a man in their fifties doing Hamlet probably wasn’t too much of a stretch.

Indeed, Hamlet was written for a star Elizabethan and Jacobean actor, Richard Burbage, when he was 31 or 32 – and he continued to play the prince for the next couple of decades, points out Will Tosh, research fellow and lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe.

Plus, he adds, Burbage started playing Lear only a few years later. “Obviously we would now regard an actor in their mid- to late-thirties as definitely too young to play Lear. How can you know enough?” says Tosh. “Well, bear in mind the person who wrote Lear was just into his forties. I think Shakespeare himself and his company were not overly troubled by issues of age.”

A youthful Hamlet does seem to be a relatively recent obsession. The great Restoration actor Thomas Betterton first played the part in 1661 and continued for the next 50 years, into his seventies. In 1899, the legendary Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet at 55. When Laurence Olivier committed his performance to celluloid, he cast a younger actress to play Hamlet’s mother – Eileen Herlie being 29 to Olivier’s 40.

And if an octogenarian Hamlet today raises eyebrows, we have actually had plenty of age-blind casting in Shakespeare plays in the past decade. Mark Rylance played Olivia in Twelfth Night at The Globe at 52, giving the countess’s crush on a young servant a whiff of painfully funny desperation – although Rylance failed to find a similarly persuasive take when he directed Much Ado About Nothing with Vanessa Redgrave, 75, and James Earl Jones, 81, as the warring Beatrice and Benedick in 2013. They sadly had zero chemistry: a necessity for lovers, of whatever age.

In 2016, a 77-year-old Derek Jacobi playing a mature Mercutio proved the most lively thing about Branagh’s 2016 production of Romeo and Juliet, while in 2010, Tom Morris offered a more comprehensive reset of the play. The star-crossed lovers (Sian Phillips and Michael Byrne) meet in a care home, and it is their children who try to keep them apart.

“Why shouldn’t people who are 80 have the same life-transforming experience when they fall in love as a 14-year-old?” Morris asked at the time. But Romeo and Juliet are rarely played age-appropriate anyway: when was the last time you saw a 13-year-old Juliet? In fact, our appetite for watching stories about teenagers certainly appears to override any age concerns.

From the stars of recent stage musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie to movie classics such as Mean Girls and Clueless, we accept actors in their twenties or even thirties as high school students. Watching Stockard Channing playing Rizzo in Grease – she was 33 at the time – arguably requires as much suspension of disbelief as classical actors playing Shakespeare’s Dane into their dotage.

Some productions, however, use age gaps for very deliberate effects – less age-blind than interested in seeing what it might reveal. The current production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre is set within a care home. A mature cast play all the parts, turning it into a memory play.

Casting adults as youngsters can also be exploited for its unnerving quality, upsetting nostalgic notions of youthful innocence. Leader of the pack here is certainly Dennis Potter’s 1979 Play for Today, Blue Remembered Hills, the adult casting helping to expose the cruelty of childhood games and bullying.

Clare Barron’s 2018 Dance Nation – about a troupe of teenage dancers – is performed by grown-up women of all ages, not 22-year-olds hoping to “pass” as 13. But as a way of exploring the power and intensity of teenage girls, it’s a potent choice.

What about acting up? Children playing adults also has its own long theatrical history, and offers a disjunct that can be exploited for laughs, or shivers. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, originally written for primary school kids, plays up to the fun of casting children in adult parts. The recent revival featured kids in comedy beards and moustaches.

At the other end of the spectrum sits Five Easy Pieces, a 2016 play about a Belgian paedophile and serial killer, by the ever-challenging Swiss director Milo Rau. It literally puts adults’ words into the mouths of innocents, children playing the murderer’s father, a detective, and grieving parents, in a piece that asks questions about power imbalances and manipulation.

Exploiting the frisson of watching children play grown-ups goes right back to Shakespeare’s time, when children’s companies were hugely popular and something of a threat to adult companies – so much so that Shakespeare even slags them off in Hamlet.

While playwrights wrote works specially for these young performers, they featured adult characters and adult themes: sex, death, adultery and intrigue. This includes plays such as John Marston’s The Malcontent and Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage – which in 2014 and 2015 The Globe tried staging with teenagers.

Were such companies taken seriously? “The boys wouldn’t have necessarily been much younger than boys on the adult stages,” Tosh points out. And then, it turns out even Hamlet has been performed by a child: in the early 19th century, Master William Betty played the part, at the age of only 13 – and became a sensation.

Hamlet may have moaned about child actors, and advised that good theatre should “hold the mirror up to nature”. But it seems audiences can easily overlook a youthful countenance – or a wrinkle or two – in the face of a truly great performer.

Where next?