I got into a bit of a squabble on Facebook today with Kelly Nestruck about Stratford and what I described as its unwillingness to hand over substantial, youthful parts to youthful, perhaps inexperienced, actors. Kelly countered that Stratford employs quite a few actors younger than 35, and he’s right. Next season, they’re even casting someone under 30 in an adult female lead (the Princess of France in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who is going to be played by Ruby Joy — six years after her NYU BFA). But that’s exceptional. What’s missing, by and large, is young actors in young roles of substance.

Almost two years ago, I wrote at some length about why I think Canadian theatre in general has a serious problem finding adequate parts for young actors. I don’t think anything has changed. And I think this is pretty much universally true, with the signal exception of Soulpepper, where a real effort is being made to integrate young actors into full-scale productions in significant roles. So I don’t mean to pick on Stratford: I don’t think they’re exceptionally bad. They’re just as bad as everyone else.

But I’m going to talk about Stratford nonetheless — because they are pretty much our only company that stages plays frequently performed elsewhere, and thus lend themselves to a comparative study. Doing that kind of comparison with new plays is impossible; doing it with shows that have been staged just once or twice elsewhere is nearly meaningless; and doing it with older plays that are hardly ever staged is similarly a little pointless. Since practically all our theatres other than Stratford trade in those kinds of plays, the only one I can compare to other international theatres is Stratford. (That most of our performance institutions are dedicated to such a weird repertory remains my biggest gripe, but that’s for another day of rehashing old arguments….)

Anyway — what kicked off my Facebook disagreement with Kelly was this: not only has Stratford cast a 43-year-old to play Hamlet next season — that in itself is not that unheard of. They have now also announced the casting of Adrienne Gould as Ophelia. It’s not the first time she’s playing the part: she was also Stratford’s last Ophelia, in 2008. When she was 33.

Let me be clear: I don’t know Ms Gould, nor do I think I’ve ever seen her perform. She may well be a spectacular actor, and I wish her every success. I also don’t take any less pleasure in seeing actors in their 40s perform on stage than in the acting of 20- or 30-year-olds. I don’t subscribe to the idea that every character has to be played by an actor of the same age as the fictional figure. I fully recognize that even within the confines of a more or less naturalistic staging, many actors can easily pull off the portrayal of a character much younger (or older) than they are. It would be stupid to object to the casting of a 40-year-old as Ophelia on aesthetic grounds.

My problem isn’t with this casting as an artistic choice. Rather, it troubles me as a symptom of what our system does to young actors — as a matter of training, and as a matter of the lack of support for the next generations of actors.

I’m not sure it’s well understood just how out of step with other countries we are in this regard. Read my earlier post first, if you haven’t already: it is perfectly normal in the UK for young actors a year or two out of theatre school to be given major parts in major theatres. This is not seen as an unusual risk: it’s simply part of how actors become professionals, of how they grow, of how a cast is assembled. And it has been that way for a long time.

Judi Dench as Ophelia in 1957. 23 is way too young, right?

Judi Dench as Ophelia in 1957. 23 is way too young, right?

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a list of 48 productions of Hamlet from the UK, mostly from the 1980s through last year, but with examples going back to the 1930s. The only instance of an Ophelia in her 40s I could find was Lillian Gish in 1936 — a bit of an exercise in stunt casting for John Gielgud’s Broadway production of the play. Of the 47 other Ophelias, 6 were in their 30s — which is to say, the 2008 casting in Stratford was already a little unusual, but not too unprecedented. (Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that most Hamlets have been played by actors in their early 30s):

Royal Shakespeare Company

Hamlet: Jonathan Slinger (41)
Ophelia: Pippa Nixon (33)

2010 (Young People’s Shakespeare):
Hamlet: Dharmesh Patel (? 30s)
Ophelia: Debbie Korley (31)

Hamlet: David Tennant (37)
Ophelia: Mariah Gale (28)

Hamlet: Toby Stephens (35)
Ophelia: Meg Fraser (30)

Hamlet: Samuel West (35)
Ophelia: Kerry Condon (28)

Hamlet: Alex Jennings (40)
Ophelia: Derbhle Crotty (29)

Hamlet: Kenneth Branagh (33)
Ophelia: Joanne Pearce (?)

Hamlet: Mark Rylance (28)
Ophelia: Rebecca Saire (25)
(1988 tour: Sylvestra LeTouzel [30])

1987 (touring show):
Hamlet: Philip Franks (31)
Ophelia: Tessa Peake-Jones (30)

Hamlet: Roger Rees (40)
Ophelia: Frances Barber (26)

Hamlet: Michael Pennington (37)
Ophelia: Carol Royle (26)

Hamlet: Ben Kingsley (32)
Ophelia: Yvonne Nicholson (?)

Hamlet: Alan Howard (33)
Ophelia: Helen Mirren (25)

Hamlet: David Warner (24)
Ophelia: Glenda Jackson (29)
(1966: Estelle Kohler [26])

Hamlet: Ian Bannen (33)
Ophelia: Geraldine McEwan (29)

Hamlet: Michael Redgrave (50)
Ophelia: Dorothy Tutin (28)

Hamlet: Alan Badel (33)
Ophelia: Dilys Hamlett (28)

Hamlet: Robert Helpmann (39) / Paul Scofield (26) (alternating)
Ophelia: Claire Bloom (17)

Hamlet: John Byron (32)
Ophelia: Anna Burden (?)

Hamlet: George Hayes (54)
Ophelia: Sara Jackson (?)

Hamlet: Basil Langton (28)
Ophelia: Peggy Bryan (24)

Michelle Dockery in 2010. 29? Absurdly young.

Michelle Dockery in 2010. 29? Absurdly young.

National Theatre

Hamlet: Rory Kinnear (32)
Ophelia: Ellie Turner (no older than 28) / Ruth Negga (28)

Hamlet: Simon Russell Beale (39)
Ophelia: Cathryn Bradshaw (36)

Hamlet: Daniel Day-Lewis (32)
Ophelia: Stella Gonet (26)

1986 (Cottesloe):
Hamlet: Tim McInnerny (30)
Ophelia: Deborah Poplett (?)

1975-76 (Old Vic/South Bank)
Hamlet: Albert Finney (39)
Ophelia: Susan Fleetwood (31)

1963 (Old Vic):
Hamlet: Peter O’Toole (31)
Ophelia: Rosemary Harris (36)


Royal Exchange, Manchester (2014):
Hamlet: Maxine Peake (40)
Ophelia: Katie West (? — 20s)

Young Vic (2011):
Hamlet: Michael Sheen (42)
Ophelia: Vinette Robinson (30)

Shakespeare’s Globe (2011):
Hamlet: Joshua McGuire (22)
Ophelia: Jade Anouka (mid-20s)

Sheffield Crucible (2010):
Hamlet: John Simm (40)
Ophelia: Michelle Dockery (29)

Donmar Warehouse/Wyndham’s Theatre (2009):
Hamlet: Jude Law (37)
Ophelia: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (26)

English Touring Theatre/New Ambassadors (2005):
Hamlet: Ed Stoppard (31)
Ophelia: Alice Patten (25)

Old Vic (2004):
Hamlet: Ben Whishaw (24)
Ophelia: Samantha Whittaker (20)

West Yorkshire Playhouse (2002):
Hamlet: Christopher Ecclestone (38)
Ophelia: Maxine Peake (28)

Shakespeare’s Globe (2000):
Hamlet: Mark Rylance (40)
Ophelia: Penny Layden (31)

Bouffes du Nord, Paris (2000):
Hamlet: Adrian Lester (32)
Ophelia: Shantala Shivalingappa (?)

Hackney Empire (1995):
Hamlet: Ralph Fiennes (33)
Ophelia: Tara Fitzgerald (28)

English Touring Theatre/Donmar Warehouse (1993):
Hamlet: Alan Cumming (28)
Ophelia: Hilary Lyon (28?)

Donmar Warehouse/Piccadilly Theatre (1981):
Hamlet: Anton Lesser (30)
Ophelia: Kathryn Pogson (27)

The Roundhouse, London (1980):
Hamlet: Steven Berkoff (43)
Ophelia: Chloe Salaman (20)

Old Vic (1978):
Hamlet: Derek Jacobi (40)
Ophelia: Suzanne Bertish (27), Jane Wymark (26)

Greenwich Theatre (1974):
Hamlet: Peter Eyre (32)
Ophelia: Nicola Pagett (29)

Hamlet at Elsinore (1964):
Hamlet: Christopher Plummer (35)
Ophelia: Jo Maxwell Muller (18)

Broadway (1964):
Hamlet: Richard Burton (39)
Ophelia: Linda Marsh (25)

Old Vic (1957):
Hamlet: John Neville (32)
Ophelia: Judi Dench (23)

Old Vic / Elsinore (1936):
Hamlet: Laurence Olivier (29)
Ophelia: Vivian Leigh (23)

Empire Theatre (1936):
Hamlet: John Gielgud (33)
Ophelia: Lillian Gish (43)

(For pictures of some of those, and others, see this delightful Guardian gallery.)


It’s a long list, and probably a boring one. But it tells an important story: the reason all those men were ready to take on a part as big as Hamlet in their early 30s was that they had smaller but important parts for years before that. Ophelia is not anywhere near as massive a role as Hamlet; it’s a much smaller part than, say, Cleopatra or Rosalind. But it’s a key role, and one that makes large demands on the actor in all of the handful of scenes in which she appears. It’s a meaty part, in other words; one that challenges and rewards its player. There’s a reason few UK productions cast complete novices as Ophelia. But neither is it a role for a mature actor: it’s intense, it’s raw, and it’s a role that offers a lot of scope for inventiveness, perhaps of the slightly naive and carefree kind. It’s the kind of part that forces a young performer to test out her limits and make daring choices in a high-stakes environment. In other words, it’s a role almost tailor-made for intellectual, artistic, and actorly growth. I’m pretty sure that playing Ophelia in her 20s was a major factor in enabling Maxine Peake to play Hamlet himself at 40.

I completely sympathize with actors of my generation, and especially female actors: I realize there are depressingly few good roles for women in Shakespeare, and very few female characters that aren’t either young or old. But the solution to that problem can’t be casting mid-career performers in roles that should go to younger colleagues. Gender-blind casting is a much better and more easily justified route — though for some reason, Canadian directors seem to feel that turning a Duke into a Duchess is a radical intervention, whereas turning a teenager into a 37-year-old woman is still in keeping with the text (see Stratford’s 2013 Romeo and Juliet).

Of course it is vitally important to create opportunities for actors of all ages. I’m not pleading for a youth revolution. But our theatrical industry has to find better ways of handing over responsibility earlier and more frequently to younger performers alongside those more experienced colleagues — and not literally on the sidelines, as spear-carriers and maids. This is not a radical thought. If the UK can do it, so can we.

10 Responses to Canadian Theatre’s Youth Problem? Still There.

  1. As a young actor who had played leads at Stratford I can personally tell you that they do in fact give young actors opportunities. I don’t understand why the casting of one play equals an epidemic. Perhaps looking at casting trends outside of one play would be useful.

  2. Hannah says:

    Just as a quiet addition – The Grand Theatre in London does a pretty good job of bringing up performers. The High School Project is a massive undertaking, and they frequently, frequently hire back alumni professionally.

  3. Kelly Nestruck says:

    I was going to weigh in here to point out that one-sided data does not an argument make… So thanks to David Ferry for providing data that completely contradicts Holger’s argument, which is based on anecdotal evidence.

    Holger, if you’re going to compare UK to Canada, do it apples to apples – let’s say Stratford to the RSC, similarish companies. Now the problem is Stratford since 2000? Well, 2/14 Ophelias you have provided ages for before 2000 at the RSC were 30+. So, about 14%. Since 2000? 3/5 RSC Ophelias have been 30+ – and none younger than 28. So, the trend on both sides of the Atlantic: Older Ophelias than pre-2000.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Kelly, you haven’t understood my argument. I never said that Canadian theatre has a historical problem with entrusting big parts to young actors. My point is that this a current problem, with potentially detrimental consequences for the future.

      Nor do I think you have the most solid grasp of how sample sizes work. Percentages really make little sense with this limited a set.

      I’m not disputing that Ophelias are typically between 25 and 30. And sometimes they’re a few years older. And they’re never 40, unless they’re Lillian Gish.

      • Kelly Nestruck says:

        So you dug up the ages of all the UK Ophelias you could back to 1930s because… it has no bearing on your point?

        Anyway, I think we’re in agreement now. Ophelias are typically between 25 and 30. Unless, they’re at Stratford or the RSC in the 2000s, at which point they’re typically between 28 and 33. And they’re never over 40, unless they’re Lillian Gish. And they’re never 40, unless they’re Adrienne Gould. And they’re never 36, unless they’re Cathryn Bradshaw.

        • Holger Syme says:

          Kelly, you’re being wilfully obtuse.

          I provided the data to show that there’s a long-standing pattern elsewhere. David helpfully provided the data to show that the very same pattern once existed at Stratford.

          One Cathryn Bradshaw does not a pattern make. If the NT had also cast most of the young lovers in Midsummer Night’s Dream with actors of my generation, and a Juliet two years younger than me, I’d hold them to task too. If Britain had a problem giving major roles to young actors at an early stage of their career, I’d say so. I don’t see the evidence for such a charge, though: look at the Charleston Prize nominees. We’d be hard pushed to sustain such a competition here, and it’s not for want of talent.

  4. David Ferry says:

    Oops and Ben Carlson was either 39 or 40

  5. David Ferry says:

    Sorry, left out Stephen’s age, 40, b. 1954

  6. David Ferry says:

    Hey Holgar, for your information, Stratford, ON HISTORY with Hamlet:

    1957 (Christopher Plummer, 28, b 1929 , Ophelia Frances Hyland 30, b 1927 )

    1969 (Kenneth Welsh, 27, b 1942, Ophelia Anne Anglin 27)

    1976 (Richard Monette 32, b 1944/ Nicholas Pennell 38, b. 1938, Ophelia Marti MARADAN 31, b 1945 )

    1991 (Colm Feore Hamlet 33 , b. 1958, Ophelia Sidonie Boll, 32)

    1994 (Stephen Quimette Ophelia , Sabrina Grdevich 23, b. 1971)

    2000 (Paul Gross Hamlet 41 , b. 1959) Marion Day Ophelia..33)

    2008 (Ben Carlson, Adrienne Gould 33 Ophelia )

    2015 (Jonathan Goad 44, b 1971 , Adrienne Gould 41, Ophelia )

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you, David — I was looking for that data, but was getting tired (4 am and all that…)

      Of course, what this shows is that until this century (!), Stratford was no different than the UK. The burning question, I take it, is what has happened since then.

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