Hamlet – Lessons from Ian McKellen

By Bob Morrell on September 14, 2021

Sitting on the stage of a leading theatrical production is an amazing experience. At the Windsor Theatre Royal, 30 people per show can opt to sit on the actual stage and be immersed in the action. To see the actors act, up close, is a privilege – to see our greatest living Shakespearean actor performing Hamlet, over nearly three hours at the age of 82, is truly remarkable. He ran about the stage like a man half his age, you forgot the age thing – he ‘acted’ like a younger man – even though he is clearly older. It didn’t matter.

There are many lessons we learnt from this performance but perhaps the biggest, was this. Focus is everything. A production is a fragile thing. One dropped line, one pause that becomes a silence, one moment where the character drops their eyeline, and all is almost lost. Hamlet is a complex, deep, and challenging play, so you need to a) make it accessible, so it is understood and b) connect the words with the actions. Hamlet needs to be mad but not too mad. Ophelia begins sane and goes completely loopy. Polonius is a boring old man but also funny, some light relief. The players, ask the audience to watch a play whilst watching the play they are actually watching! So you are in effect, joining the cast as they watch it too. Being on the stage, we felt as focused as the actors. How could we not be?

In life, we often drop our focus because the intensity of the concentration makes it too hard for us. Learning lines is hard. But we learn presentations, sales pitches, management conversation structures. Do we really focus in on the key moments, the bits where it would make or break what we are saying? Do we really learn the word, the nuance, the tone, the pace, the volume, and the pronunciation, or do we largely trust our luck?

Many organisations script their conversations, never expecting the frontline staff to learn the lines, they are always in front of them, in a guide or a diagram. What would it be like if each person learnt their roles and enacted them in an original form, on every conversation? Their focus would need to be such that they remembered every line, and how it should be delivered?

If, when we are selling, we are playing the part of the enthusiastic salesperson, why don’t we focus on the lines and the delivery more closely? To make sure we are believable.

We’ll be reporting more on this performance.