Skip to content

A Love Letter to the Theatre

An interview with Sean Mathias, the director of a daring and original new film adaptation of ‘Hamlet.’

· 11 min read
A Love Letter to the Theatre
A still from Hamlet, directed by Sean Mathias, (2024). YouTube

“Serendipity and the pandemic handed the Hamlet film to me,” director Sean Mathias tells me, as he explains how the play that he and Sir Ian McKellen had been preparing for the stage became a silver-screen production. “By the time we were ready to film, I knew every space, corner, room, corridor, lift, hallway, and even toilet in what became our film set. I knew where each and every scene would be set, and yes, we even shot one of our scenes in the theatre Royal Windsor toilets.” 

Every space within the theatre has been put to use, including spectator seats, staircases, ladders, and the theatre’s own stage. Hamlet’s emotional exchange with Gertrude was shot in the costume workshop, a heavy-goods lift takes him and Horatio to the deadly duel, and Hamlet comes face to face with his father’s ghost on the theatre roof. But it is not just the unusual setting that gives Mathias’s Hamlet its groundbreaking edge—this is a colour-, gender-, and age-blind production. Young Ophelia (Alis Wyn Davies) is a guitar-playing rock-chick, and Laertes and Hamlet’s father’s ghost are both played by women (Emmanuella Cole and Francesca Annis, respectively). We see Horatio using a video camera and Hamlet riding his exercise bike in his modern flat. 

In the following interview, director Sean Mathias reflects on his daring production, Hamlet as Shakespeare’s pre-Freudian play, the film’s stellar cast, and his controversial decision to cast 80-year-old McKellen in the title role. The text has been lightly edited for fluency.

Quillette: According to IMDb, Shakespeare has 1,783 screenwriting credits to date and 49 upcoming. Why does Shakespeare still draw audiences today? Why do his characters, plots, and moral conflicts still resonate?

Sean Mathias: Shakespeare is as relevant today as he ever was. Whilst society is arranged in a different way and we have different ecosystems, different health, and different educational systems, he remains relevant because he was writing about the way that people behave, and the way they are hungry for primal things such as power, love, appreciation, and status. What makes Hamlet extraordinary—and rather different from many of Shakespeare’s other plays—is that Shakespeare wasn’t what you would call a psychological writer, he was a pre-Freudian writer. He wasn't somebody who was examining the mind, he was examining the way people behave and the way they are with one another. But in Hamlet, he wrote a play where a man is having an endless conversation with his own mind, analysing himself. In that sense, he was a precursor to Freud. He predicted that Freud would come and find our minds fascinating, and find the entrapment we get into in our own minds fascinating.

Q: Hamlet, of course, shares these thoughts with the audience.

SM: Yes he does, and I think that Hamlet broke the mould in that sense for Shakespeare’s style of writing. Shakespeare had previously written many monologues with the audience as confidant, but here he has so many famous monologues where Hamlet also confides in the audience, tells them all his thoughts, all his fears, all his conflicts. Why? Because he can’t make up his mind. He is a man of indecision, torn between an endless myriad of possibilities, and so he treats the audience as analyst. And that’s what Shakespeare was writing about—will Hamlet kill his stepfather or not? But within that central question there are so many many ideas and possibilities, so many moralities—eternal, global themes that resonate with everyone. There’s never been a writer who could be more interpreted than Shakespeare. There are a million ways of doing Hamlet and this is just one of them. Ours is unique but it’s just one way of doing Hamlet. Other people can do it in so many other ways. I can’t think of another writer who lends himself to so much interpretation.

Embed from Getty Images

Q: Why do so many people consider Hamlet to be Shakespeare's greatest play?

SM: I think what’s extraordinary—and our version turns this on its head somewhat—is that Hamlet is roughly 20 years old in the play. We only meet him after his father’s death but there’s evidence in the play that Hamlet was a very lively, popular, and charismatic figure. He was a young prince destined to be king, but his father dies and his entire persona—his character and behaviour—changes because his mind changes. He is not only grieving his father’s death, he is also incredulous that his mother has quickly remarried his father’s brother. So, he is baffled, disconcerted, and totally lost. 

Claudius and Gertrude made a mistake by marrying so soon; they should have waited but they did not and that’s the story. This sets Hamlet on a path where nobody recognises him. They keep saying he’s changed, gloomily mourning the death of his father. And he is frightened—when you lose a parent, it’s incredibly shocking and you go into a state of orphanage that breaks your heart. It’s an insurmountable loss to Hamlet, but the other loss is his mother, whom he feels he has lost at the same time. So, he starts to behave in ways that are unfathomable. Even more so once he’s met the ghost of his father—he doesn’t know whether or not to trust the ghost but he feels that maybe he should. He decides to fake madness so he’s already behaving out of character in a true sense. And then, on top of that, he behaves out of character in a false sense.

Q: Is this what makes Hamlet every actor’s dream role?

SM: This is it, for an actor—you are young, you are virile, you are going to become the king. It’s a fantastically glamorous role. You’ve then got all this psychological angst, and no one loves angst like young people—young people are the masters of angst, and we try to grow out of it as we grow older. When I was in my 20s, I was wildly neurotic—so you’ve got that to play and then you’ve got this physical character to play. Hamlet is a character of the mind, but in the course of the play, he becomes a physical character—he gets kidnapped by pirates and enters this pirate world and returns to the castle a changed man determined to kill Claudius. So, the arc that the actor gets to play is enormous, through the mind, through the body, and through the spirit. Shakespeare wrote this incredible part that both male and female actors want to play and have played—Sarah Bernhardt played it when she was in her 50s, Ian just played it in his 80s without pretending to be 20. But other actors have played it pretending to be 20, 25, 30, and well into their 50s and 60s, because it’s just one of those roles that you want to play.

Q: Sir Ian McKellen’s name has become synonymous with Shakespeare.

SM: People associate him with Shakespeare and I think he’s probably—along with Dame Judi Dench—the most famous Shakespearean British actor working in the English language today. I think it was a surprise to everyone when he broke into film when he was already in his 60s. His breakout film was Richard III and then he got big roles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the X-Men films that brought him international fame. But his essence is connected to Shakespeare. He speaks the language in quite an individual way—he obeys a lot of the rules and he breaks a lot of the rules at the same time. People are fascinated watching him and he’s a very physical actor, so the physicality he uses on stage is great for Shakespeare because Shakespeare is a very physical writer. He writes scenes of battle, scenes of pageant, scenes of love, scenes of action, He’s an action writer as well as a study of the court and human behaviour and I think that those qualities that Shakespeare demands were well suited to Ian.

Fatal Vision: Joel Coen’s ‘Macbeth’
“I am in this earthly world, where to do harm / Is often laudable, to do good / Sometime accounted dangerous folly.” So says Lady Macduff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Moments later, she and her entire family—innocents all—are slaughtered. The triumph of Joel Coen’s film adaptation is that it

Q: McKellen’s performance is mesmerising; he delivers his lines with captivating calm. 

SM: He had actually played Hamlet before but he hadn’t really enjoyed it—he hadn’t felt he was any good when he was young. One of the difficulties in portraying Hamlet is that you need the body of a 20-year-old and the wisdom of an 80-year-old, because Hamlet goes through such an extraordinary journey. He loses his life as a result, but he does finally get his vengeance. On one level, Hamlet is a vengeance play and you can just do it as a vengeance play. On another level, it’s a psychological thriller. And on another, it’s an existentialist journey—when Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be?,” I don’t think he means “Shall I kill my myself?” I think he is trying to figure out what it means to be Hamlet.

What we didn’t know when we started out was that this idea would become a film. We were going to do a play, but then COVID happened and the theatres were all closed, and after six, seven, eight months of waiting for the theatres to open, I became very frustrated and conceived it as a movie. So, we made it as a movie before we ever did it on stage, and it became an original movie, not a filmed adaptation of the stage production, but a real film.

It took me a year to persuade Ian to do this—there’s madness in asking an 80-year-old to play a 20-year-old, but my argument was that anybody can play anything, so what does it matter? We’re all just players—young people play old people, old people play young people, we do colour-blind casting, we do gender-blind casting. So why can’t we do age-blind casting? Olivier said that you need to play the great Shakespearean roles more than once, and understanding that comes with age. Ian’s Hamlet is very accepting of death and mortality, he dies with acceptance and peace, he allows Horatio to cradle him, unlike the king and Gertrude who suffer gruesome deaths. 

Q: Speaking of Horatio, was there more to their relationship as some have suggested?

SM: Well, Shakespeare is a genius at hinting at things. There is a scene in which Hamlet tells Horatio how important he is to him and how he holds him in his heart. Hamlet doesn’t say that to any other character.

Q: What about Hamlet and Ophelia? While she is tormented in love, Hamlet is more subdued.

SM: Hamlet and Ophelia do have a love affair. It is a touch ambiguous—they write poems to each other but there is no evidence of a physical relationship. The age gap has played a part in this. He confuses her when he rejects her and she breaks down. She is in tears and anguish over his rejection and goes through quite a harrowing journey. I saw Ophelia as a lover of poetry and music—she starts as Joni Mitchell and ends as Janis Joplin. In any case, we learn of his love for her at the funeral scene. Hamlet is shocked and expresses his love for her, a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

Q: You have managed to make Shakespeare more accessible. The action moves swiftly, and you create a relatable, modern setting. Were you clear on your approach to the film from the very start?

SM: I am not a Shakespeare aficionado but he is not always easy to follow. People get lost because of the language, so the familiar setting does make it more accessible and relatable. As for the approach, I don’t think you can approach anything in any one way, you approach it from different avenues. Ian and I started cutting the text together, and because he has done so much Shakespeare and I’ve done so little, he was very bold in cutting the text, and I was a bit shocked. But that emboldened me and I started cutting more. We also moved some scenes, like the scene where Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery, which appears earlier in our version.

We’d been cutting, pasting, and editing for about a year, and I was asked to be the artistic director at Windsor. I took a long time to make that decision because I wasn’t sure what I could bring to it. I went to the theatre and looked around on the stage, backstage, in the auditorium, in the offices, up in wardrobe, underneath the stage, I kept sort of touring the theatre just for my own benefit, and then when I sort of persuaded Ian to play Hamlet on stage, I took him to the theatre and toured it with him. By the time the idea for the film came up, I had a great knowledge of all the different locations in the theatre. I said I want to set the film in the theatre but not on the stage and I was able to decide where most scenes would take place. So, when the director of photography [Neil Oseman] joined me, I was able to say to him this is where I want to shoot each scene. He did an amazing job designing and creating the shots. We made a few changes as we went along, of course, but that was a tremendous privilege because the producer owned the theatre.

I remember, after the first lockdown, you could go back to work in limited ways in bubbles and we all lived in a hotel. We were then able to move into this theatre and take it over and make it our own and it became the castle of Elsinore—it became the home of Hamlet and the Hamlet family. We just took it over and lived and breathed in that theatre. That was serendipity.

Q: You managed to gather some of the finest actors around.

SM: This is a little weird because, before we decided to make the film, I was going to do two plays: Hamlet and Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. So, I decided I wanted to have a company of 15 actors who I would cross-cast in both. Different people would play different parts in the two plays. I cast actors in the first six principal roles in both plays, cross-pollinating, as it were. When you are casting something, you might have an idea of an actor in your head, but you often don’t get them. 

The challenge is also in the chemistry with the person who’s going to play opposite them, so when you have Hamlet you want to know who will be good with him. And if you got an 80-year-old Hamlet and you’re casting a 20-year-old Ophelia, it has to be very particular. You don’t want to introduce the idea of an old man with a young girl; you want to bring up that Hamlet and Ophelia are mismatched in love, not because of their age difference, but because of their circumstances. The same goes for Hamlet’s mother—if Hamlet is 80, how old is his mother? So it’s a very peculiar balancing act, in a way, and a very daring, slightly crazy thing to do. But it turned out rather well because all the actors give really wonderful performances. I hope that when people watch the film, they are thinking “Ian McKellen is an amazing actor” and not looking at the wrinkles on his face.

There is rigidity of thought within young people today. I sense that they tend to follow rules more than we did. We always broke all the rules—you were put into a box and you said I’ve got to get out of this box or I’m going to go mad. Young people once broke all the rules, but now the young are forever quoting rules at me and I find it very disconcerting. I understand how this has happened—young people are searching for order and that’s great because without some order you just have chaos. That said, you do need spontaneity, and in the arts, you need the freedom of imagination. You’ve got to be a dreamer to work in the arts.

Hamlet will be available on DVD, Blu-ray, & Digital download from April 8.

On Instagram @quillette