It was billed as one of Sir Ian McKellen’s most ambitious roles yet – returning to the traditionally youthful role of Hamlet at the age of 82 in an ‘age, colour and gender-blind’ version of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
But it seems something is rotten in the state of the controversial production – as two of its leading actors have dropped out amid claims of a bitter disagreement.
The Mail on Sunday understands that veteran performer Steven Berkoff, who was to play Polonius, and rising star Emmanuella Cole, who was to appear as his son Laertes, have both left the show ahead of its opening night on Tuesday.
Ms Cole is said to have complained to cast and crew that 83-year-old Berkoff left her feeling ‘belittled and disrespected’ during rehearsals.
For his part, Mr Berkoff vehemently denies any wrongdoing or improper behaviour. But the daggers have been drawn, and Ms Cole’s understudy says he’ll continue in the role for ‘as long as needed’.
Such slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are deeply unfortunate for Sir Ian, as they threaten to overshadow his feted performance as the oldest ever Hamlet on a British stage, in a production that has already been dogged by Covid delays.
Separate sources have told how the row has left Sir Ian ‘under strain’ and ‘in tears’.
Ms Cole is said to have complained to cast and crew that 83-year-old Berkoff left her feeling ‘belittled and disrespected’ during rehearsals
It has been 50 years since he first played the young Danish prince, and a West End run was predicted after the show’s season in Windsor.
A friend of Sir Ian, who played Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Ian has been in tears over this. He’s absolutely beside himself that the play has been overshadowed.’
Amid the fallout, Sir Ian’s long-time friend Frances Barber is to take on the role of Polonius in another example of the ‘gender-blind’ casting.
Sir Ian has spoken fondly of Ms Cole, who previously played a psychiatric nurse in EastEnders and has appeared on Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks. In an interview earlier this year he described her as ‘a prize fencer – and she’ll be able to give me some tips. I hope’.
The Hamlet cast and crew have had to live together in a Covid bubble during rehearsals, which began nine months ago but stopped during the last lockdown before resuming in March. It is understood tensions soon arose, with sources close to the production claiming Ms Cole and Mr Berkoff ‘clashed from day one’.
‘Ms Cole felt her opinions weren’t listened to and that she was given no respect,’ a source said.
‘She felt the cast and creatives paid a lot of respect to Berkoff while she was marginalised. When she made comments about how she saw the production and staging she was over-talked and made to feel like a second-class citizen.’
A few days ago, Mr Berkoff is believed to have exited, stage left, and not returned. In a phone call to The Mail on Sunday, he confirmed there had been a complaint and his withdrawal from the production has been explained officially as being down to ‘rescheduled professional commitments’.
The theatre management initially told ticket-holders that Ms Cole was off sick and now says that Mr Berkoff will not be appearing for the foreseeable future ‘for personal reasons’, and also that he left because an extension of the production to September ‘clashed’ with another of his projects.
Mr Berkoff vehemently denies any wrongdoing or improper behaviour. But the daggers have been drawn, and Ms Cole’s understudy says he’ll continue in the role for ‘as long as needed’
Mr Berkoff’s career has spanned more than half a century, including the roles of General Orlov in the Bond film Octopussy and Hitler in the TV mini-series War And Remembrance. In the past he’s been an outspoken critic of political correctness in the acting world.
Five years ago he rebuked a critic for celebrating the fact that white actors no longer ‘blacked-up’ for roles such as Othello. He blamed ‘friends of political correctness’ for making traditionally black parts a ‘no-go-zone’ for white actors, and said watching Laurence Olivier playing Othello in the 1960s was ‘one of the most spellbinding performances of my life’.
‘Great drama is colour-blind and goes far deeper than the colour of a person’s skin, white or black,’ he wrote. He later added: ‘I believe actors of all colour, particularly black actors, should be cast for the immensity of their talents and not the slack-jawed nod to political correctness.’
The Hamlet cast includes Francesca Annis, who is in her mid-70s, as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, while Jenny Seagrove, almost 20 years Sir Ian’s junior, plays Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude.
Speaking earlier this year, Sir Ian – who made his professional stage debut in 1961 – said: ‘Theatre is all make-believe. It should be possible for us to enjoy anybody playing anybody.’
Representatives for Ms Cole, Mr Berkoff and Sir Ian declined to comment last night. As Hamlet would say, the rest is silence.