Ian McKellen as Hamlet: Is ageism the last great barrier in the arts industry?

Will the critics let them be sexagenarian murderers in peace? I wouldn’t count on it

Sir Ian McKellen whose long-anticipated return to the role of Hamlet has been set for June at the Theatre Royal Windsor. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

Sir Ian McKellen whose long-anticipated return to the role of Hamlet has been set for June at the Theatre Royal Windsor. Photograph: David M Benett/Dave Benett/WireImage

 

Is ageism the last great barrier in the arts industry? Just look at the hullabaloo surrounding the confirmation that, after Covid delays, Ian McKellen will, then aged 82, appear (I admire their optimism) as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Bath in June.

“There was a degree of self-righteous indignation,” David Benedict, distinguished biographer of Stephen Sondheim, sighed in the Stage. “How could there possibly be a production in which Hamlet’s mother is played by Jenny Seagrove, who is 18 years younger than the man playing her son?”

Benedict went on to explain that, “in addition to being gender and colour-blind the production is age-blind”. But McKellen’s casting has produced a chatter you would no longer expect to encounter if a black actor or a female were in the role. Few bothered to whinge about Ruth Negga, a woman of colour, playing Hamlet at The Gate in 2018. Those arguments now take place only in the presence of the most fatuous bores. People of colour still face enormous obstacles, but classical theatre is opening up as never before.

At the top of the tree, female actors, as we noted here recently, enjoy greater longevity than their counterparts from Hollywood’s golden age

“If the whole area of entertainment is prejudiced against anything it is prejudiced against people with grey beards,” Neil Jordan told me recently. He was speaking mainly about directors, but could this also apply to actors? Is this the last taboo?

Not really. Men are still landing roles that, if the historical facts were honoured, would go to actors young enough to be their children. In David Fincher’s recent Mank, the part of Herman J Mankiewicz, then 42, goes to the 62-year-old Gary Oldman. Marion Davies — born the same year as the screenwriter — is played by Amanda Seyfried, 34 at time of shooting. Nobody much remarked on this. Would they have noticed if, say, Jamie Lee Curtis or Michelle Pfeiffer, both exact contemporaries of Oldman, had been cast as William Randolph Hearst’s young mistress? I think they might.

Netflix’s sleeper hit The Dig concerns the professional relationship between two people in their 50s: archaeologist Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty. Guess which was played by someone born in the 1980s. Carey Mulligan is more than 20 years younger than Pretty at the time. Ralph Fiennes is around eight years older than the contemporaneous Brown.

So, women still experience ageism in the film industry. But things have got better in some regards. At the top of the tree, female actors, as we noted here recently, enjoy greater longevity than their counterparts from Hollywood’s golden age. The Denches, the Streeps and the Pfeiffers fasten upon decent parts at ages when the Crawfords, the Stanwycks and the De Havillands were doing support work on TV westerns.

The conversation around McKellen is of a different nature. Carey Mulligan was not pretending to be a woman in her late 50s. Creaky and balding, Oldman did not seem to be portraying a Hollywood prince in his early 40s. The parts have been tweaked to suit the actors playing them.

Cinema has always pretended to a realism that theatre has less trouble shaking off (please note the word “pretended” there). You rarely get choruses in Hollywood movies. Screenplays in blank verse are as rare as screenplays in Latin. Young men once played the female roles in Shakespeare and the original costumes – even for Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida – were what then counted for modern dress.

With all this in mind, it should not ask much of contemporary audiences to imagine Hamlet as a woman, King Lear as an Asian person or Prince Hal as a septuagenarian.

Ian McKellen as Hamlet in a 1970 TV production directed by David Giles. Photograph: Prospect Productions/BBC
Ian McKellen as Hamlet in a 1970 TV production directed by David Giles. Photograph: Prospect Productions/BBC

Yet that last example does still catch in the throat a little. Is it because youthful gusto and kinetic authority are wound into the young heir’s persona? It would require work for even Patrick Stewart – who received acclaim as Macbeth in his seventies – to convincingly deliver “I know thee not, old man” to Timothée Chalamet as Falstaff (though you’d pay money to see him try). There comes a point when, for all the transformative traditions of theatre, an actor’s human baggage may work against the dynamics of the drama.

The challenges facing McKellen, who first played Hamlet 50 years ago, are not quite so daunting. For several centuries, older actors have, as retirement beckoned, found ways of interrogating the student procrastinator’s inner demons. Sarah Bernhardt was still playing the part as she closed in on 60. More recently, Simon Russell Beale managed Hamlet and King Lear within 14 years of one another. “You can do what you like with it – as long as you make coherent, emotional sense,” Russell Beale said of Shakespeare. That sounds like a maxim worth living by.

The conversation will, nonetheless, keep bubbling on. Towards the end of this year, we should see Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as the leads in Joel (but not Ethan) Coen’s film of The Tragedy of Macbeth. Will the critics let them be sexagenarian murderers in peace? I wouldn’t count on it. Ageism is still looming.    

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