Ian McKellen, Alan Rickman, Zoë Wanamaker and more on Shakespeare roles

Five leading actors give insights into how they approached Shakespearean roles

For his latest book, Julian Curry talked to twelve leading actors on twelve key roles. Here are a few choice snippets from five performers on roles as different as Hamlet and King Lear, and Beatrice and Viola.

Ian McKellen

On falling asleep backstage during
King Lear

"I fell asleep in Brooklyn during my big gap. It was cold in the dressing room so I got tucked up under some blankets. When the time came to go back on stage I was fast asleep and the call boy didn’t see me. Eventually they realised. Get on – quick!! I dashed down on to the stage saying my lines from the wings so the audience could hear them, and entered and thought: Yeah, fine, situation rescued. What I didn’t realise was that the actors had been waiting for a minute or more, and eventually had given up. The stage manager had come on and was saying I’m afraid there’s been an unavoidable accident, or mistake… but then they heard me and thought, Oh here he comes, it’s okay. And that was the situation I came into, but I wasn’t aware of it."

Alan Rickman

On nearly forgetting the 'To be or not to be…' soliloquy

"I nearly did, when I was playing Hamlet at the Riverside Studios. It was that terrible thing of running through lines just before you go on. I was standing in the wings muttering "To be, or not to be, that is the question: whether ’tis…" and at that point I froze completely. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were just exiting, so I ran round to where they were, and I grabbed them and said "To be or not to be, that is the question: whether ’tis what?… whether ’tis what?" And they went, "Whether ’tis nobler in the mind -" "Oh, thank you!""

Zoë Wanamaker

On relating to Beatrice in
Much Ado About Nothing

"I recognised something personal about Beatrice, because for years I never wanted to get married to anybody who wasn’t perfect. Of course there is no such thing as perfection, but from what I’d seen of some marriages I would rather be single, and I’d got to a stage in my mid-life when I was quite content to be by myself and just turn into a juicy old lady, and that would be that. Therefore I understood where Beatrice was coming from, and I think Simon [Russell Beale, who was playing Benedick] maybe felt the same – never finding the right person, so it’s better simply to be on your own."

Chiwetel Ejiofor

On seeing Othello as a sequel to
Romeo and Juliet

"I did Romeo and Juliet at the National in about 2000, and in approaching Othello I was struck by the similarities between the two plays. When Romeo falls in love with Juliet it creates this kind of blip, like a submarine on the radar, and all guns are trained on it. Love is vulnerable and difficult, and is manipulated by others for their own agendas. And in Othello it’s the same, but instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the forces of repression are represented by Iago. In both plays you have this beautiful and precious, innocent love which is destroyed by outside pressures that are duplicitous, aggressive, angry and cynical."

Eileen Atkins

On playing Viola disguised as a boy in
Twelfth Night

"It felt heavenly. I always wanted the breeches parts. You immediately don’t have to be so dimity. The minute you get into men’s clothes you feel jauntier. Women are used to it now, we all wear trousers. But in my youth I was spat upon for wearing ‘slacks’ as they were called. I was spat upon in the Tube by men in city suits. Until I went to drama school at sixteen I hadn’t worn slacks, I’d been in school uniform. So getting into trousers was very releasing. Skirts make you feel sexier. But trousers make you feel, well, "jaunty" I think is a good word."

These extracts are from Shakespeare on Stage: Volume 2 which is published by Nick Hern Books. For more information and to buy the book click here