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The Show Must Go on; first major post-COVID theatre production begins rehearsals, with Sir Ian McKellen playing Hamlet

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A new production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by Sean Mathias with Ian McKellen in an age-blind interpretation of the young Prince, will go into rehearsals on Monday 29 June.

Produced by Bill Kenwright, Hamlet will herald Sean Mathias’ inaugural season at Theatre Royal Windsor and will be followed by Martin Sherman’s adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, with McKellen as Firs the elderly manservant.

This is the first major UK production to begin rehearsals since theatres went dark in March in accordance with government guidelines to stem the spread of COVID-19.

However, rehearsals are now able to start with strict measures in place to ensure the safety of the company. The schedule, from 29 June, will be carefully choreographed around social distancing, screening, hygiene, and PPE, with close adherence to the latest government guidelines. There will be a daily review of the protection protocol based on practical considerations learnt in the rehearsal room. If the show can’t yet go on, rehearsals at least will.

Sean Mathias said: “I have always been a fan of ensemble work so when Bill Kenwright asked me to be his Artistic Director at Windsor I saw a perfect opportunity to create a company and direct two of the greatest plays ever written. The disappointment at being halted by COVID 19 has now been replaced with encouraging signs that we can at least start to work on these beautiful plays with an exceptional company. We walk a tight rope through the forest whilst we await news of when we may actually perform in front of a live audience, but it will be invigorating to leave the house and get into a rehearsal room and be a part of British Theatre returning to the boards.”

Ian McKellen said: “I feel lucky to be working again, thanks to Bill Kenwright’s inspiring optimism and Sean Mathias’s invitation to re-examine Hamlet, 50 years on from my first go. So now we will meet again. Don’t know when but do know where – Theatre Royal Windsor!”

Bill Kenwright said: “Sean, Ian and myself have been planning this season for some time now, and the truth is I couldn’t bear to see it slip away. So a lot of more planning, a great deal of determination (and I must admit some of the things I learned prior to the return of football) has got us to the place where all things theatrical start. Nothing is more important than this country’s (and indeed the world’s) health and safety, so we are not ready to announce an opening night yet – but I’m a great believer in making a start if a start is possible, and in this instance it is. I’m hopeful we will be enjoying a Windsor season in the forthcoming months.”

Sean Mathias is a leading British theatre and film director and writer with numerous awards to his name including the Evening Standard Theatre Award, WhatsOnStage Award, the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award, a Fringe First at Edinburgh and the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes. In 2009/10 Sean was the Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Haymarket where his legendary production of Waiting for Godot starring Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart and Simon Callow, played two seasons, as well as touring the UK and internationally. In 2013 Sean directed and co-produced Beckett’s Godot and Pinter’s No Man’s Land in rep on Broadway. His production of No Man’s Land, starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, was the highest grossing play in the history of Wyndham’s Theatre. His association with Bill Kenwright started with his revolutionary production of Design For Living starring Rachel Weisz.

Ian McKellen made his long overdue debut at Theatre Royal Windsor last year in his acclaimed solo show. He was heralded that year as the most important actor in British theatre. Over the years he has worked with Sean Mathias consistently, most recently in WAITING AND GODOT and NO MAN’S LAND with another friend, Patrick Stewart.  Mathias directed him as Uncle Vanya at the National Theatre and is looking forward to a further Chekhov journey. McKellen’s performances in Shakespeare are legendary, from Macbeth with Judi Dench to his film of RICHARD III with Maggie Smith. He played Hamlet on tour and in the West End nearly fifty years ago and is looking forward to the challenge of a return visit.

Bill Kenwright’s estimated 500 productions include West End successes Jessica Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Long Day’s Journey Into Night; Judi Dench in Filumena, Hay Fever and The Gift of the Gorgon (all directed by Sir Peter Hall); Rufus Norris’ Festen and Cabaret; The Wizard of Oz (Palladium); Joseph (Adelphi and New London); Evita (Dominion); and the Windrush musical The Big Life (Lyric Theatre). Broadway highlights include: Dancing At Lughnasa, Medea, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, Théâtre de Complicite’s The Chairs (multiple Tony Awards). Blood Brothers, which he also directed, ran for three years on Broadway (Music Box) and 24 years in the West End (Phoenix).

CREATIVE TEAM

Director: Sean Mathias; Set Designer: Lee Newby; Costume Designer: Loren Elstein; Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt; Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork.