Return of the KingDate: 19 November 2007
Ian McKellen’s King Lear is one of the actor’s most momentous stage performances ever. As it and The Seagull hit the West End, Michael Coveney celebrates a career which has always been inextricably entwined with the Royal Shakespeare Company
As he leads the Royal Shakespeare Company into the New London Theatre as King Lear, Ian McKellen is fulfilling the promise that he and his oldest friend from Cambridge, Trevor Nunn, made to each other many years ago: they would do this play together one day. King Lear is, says McKellen, “the most difficult thing I have ever done”.
And doubling it with The Seagull (in which McKellen shares the role of Sorin with William Gaunt) harks back to a high point in both men’s early careers when the first RSC small-scale tour was launched in 1978, and the Shakespeare/Chekhov pairing was manifest in Twelfth Night and Three Sisters, signature Nunn productions with McKellen as Sir Toby Belch and, even more memorably, Andrei.
Such is the kinetic nature of McKellen’s career, even King Lear seems like just another stopping-off point. Since the Stratford-upon-Avon opening, the company has toured to Australia, New Zealand and New York. And still McKellen is jabbing away at a performance that is an enthralling study of majesty crumbling into mere humanity, stripping stark naked on the heath, feeding an imaginary mouse with a piece of toasted cheese.
“Every night I consciously do new things,” he told the New York Times recently, “not just for the sake of it, but because there are still areas in the play that I haven’t got right. Basically, it has been a stripping away of the rhetorical tone. Lear is a great talker… and he occasionally mumbles to himself. But most of the time he is in debate or pronouncing.”
McKellen speaks with the authority of vast experience. He embodies the paradoxical virtue of being a fervent company man and an undisputed star. Even before he became world famous in two great, popular film trilogies – as the wise and kindly wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and the killer mutant Magneto in The X-Men – he was a democratic icon. The joke went, when he co-founded the Actors Company with Edward Petherbridge in 1972, that McKellen would play Hamlet and a waiter. What was that second play called? The Waiter.
McKellen, who was born in Burnley and grew up in Wigan and Bolton, was head boy at his grammar school and president of the Marlowe Society at Cambridge. The Marlowe never printed actors’ names in the programmes. When McKellen played Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part II in 1959, Alan Dent said in the News Chronicle: “One would like to know the name of this Shallow, because it might become a name to remember.”
The presence of God himself
He’s hardly been out of work since a debut at the Belgrade, Coventry in 1961. I saw him electrifying the London stage in James Saunders’ elegiac A Scent of Flowers in 1964 and Arnold Wesker’s underrated epic Their Very Own and Golden City at the Royal Court in 1966. But the real breakthrough came with Prospect Theatre Company, precursors of Stephen Unwin’s English Touring Theatre (of which McKellen is a patron), in Richard II and Marlowe’s Edward II in 1969.
Here was a new titan of our stage: attractive, quivering, great voice and limbs (huge hands), with a sort of dangerous liability to do something different or unexpected. He found a direct line to his audience. Peter Hall declared him a star: “an actor who can be downstage with his back to the audience in the dark, and still be the centre of attention.” In his Richard II, Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times discovered “the ineffable presence of God himself”.
McKellen made his RSC debut at the Edinburgh Festival of 1974 in Marlowe’s Faustus and stamped his mark on the early years of Nunn’s directorship in Stratford and London as Macbeth with Judi Dench – a scary, gripping, mostly whispered production – as the Bastard in King John, a brilliant Face in The Alchemist and both Romeo and Leontes in the same 1976 season as Macbeth!
Stamina & dedication
His stamina is as impressive as his dedication. I saw this close up when I travelled with the National Theatre to the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens in 1985. McKellen had already been playing his Coriolanus for ten months, but he never stopped rehearsing, haggling over details of re-staging with Peter Hall. He had given up smoking, alcohol and meat for the role and visited the gym three times a week. He was, in truth, a demi-god; he had realised the challenge when he played an emotionally frenzied Aufidius in the play for Tyrone Guthrie in 1963.
His RSC Iago in 1989 (Willard White was Othello; Imogen Stubbs, Desdemona) was another meticulous Nunn production, almost novelistic in its detail, and McKellen the very picture of a wheedling, perfectionist, slyly untrustworthy adjutant; while his Richard III at the National for Richard Eyre (which he also took on a world tour and later filmed, with Richard Loncraine) was a knockout fascist orator in 1930s London.
Knighted in 1991 (and affectionately dubbed “Serena” by Stephen Fry), McKellen’s film career has gathered pace and now taken off. But still he dared to play pantomime dame at the Old Vic and visited the television sets of Coronation Street and Ricky Gervais’ Extras (his self-parodying gay thespian was a total hoot) and last year graced Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut at the Donmar Warehouse with a performance of chilling understatement and cruelty.
Now aged 68, amazingly lithe and still fairly athletic, McKellen really is facing the music as King Lear, and the everlasting twinkle in Gandalf’s eye is temporarily eclipsed by the furrowed brow and rolling thunder of Shakespeare’s greatest play. But he’s ready for it: “I think you can throw in your experience, not just of acting, but of life. It’s a wonderfully supportive role. The scenes almost play themselves.” Not so difficult after all, then…
King Lear and The Seagull open on 28 and 27 November 2007 (previews from 15 and 12 November) at the West End’s New London Theatre, where they continue in rep until 12 January 2008. A longer version of this article – including “Bitesize Sir Ian” snippets and an overview of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s presence in London – appears in the November issue of What’s on Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also receive all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!