Theater Review: Ian McKellan on Stage

For Ian McKellen’s 80th year, he has embarked on a tour of 80 theaters in the UK (to be followed by a run of 80 shows in London at a West End theater). The goal of this tour is to give back to the theaters he worked in over his career, and others. As such, all the proceeds of these performances go to specific projects for each theater.

I’m celebrating my 80th birthday by touring a new solo show to theatres I know well and a few that I don’t. The show starts with Gandalf and will probably end with an invitation to act with me on stage. In-between there will be anecdotes and acting. I open at my local arts centre in January and end up by August in Orkney.

Live theatre has always been thrilling to me, as an actor and in the audience. Growing up in Lancashire, I was grateful to those companies who toured beyond London and I’ve always enjoyed repaying that debt by touring up and down the country myself, with the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Prospect Theatre, the Actors’ Company, as well as with commercial productions.

McKellen gave two performances in Stratford-upon-Avon on Sunday. In the afternoon, he played the small Swan Theatre (460 seats), and in the evening, he played the larger Royal Shakespeare Theatre (1,000 seats). I had snagged seats for the Swan performance at the front of the stage (it has a thrust stage) in the front row.

It was a delight to see McKellen in person, so close, yet again. I had seen him play King Lear in Chichester, back in 2017, in an even smaller theater, where the grandeur of the play met with the intimacy of the setting.

McKellen began with Gandalf, of course. For most people, he is best known for that role, and he came on stage to loud music from the film, then read the segment of the book where he has his signature line, “You shall not pass!” This was quite moving, as were the anecdotes about the films, such as the fact that he had never read the books before taking on the project. (And he mocked the many people who claim that “I read the Lord of the Rings ever year!”)

On stage were some oriental rugs, and a “skip,” a trunk that actors used to carry around their stuff. Throughout the performance he removed items from it: a table, a chair, books, a wizard hat, and more. During the Gandalf bit, he invited a “young person” to come on stage and wield his sword, Glamdring, which had been given to him after the filming ended. The teenage girl who came on stage, Sarah, got to hold the sword, and McKellen took a selfie with her, using a Fujifilm Instax camera, and signed a program for her.

He then told the tale of his life in the theater, from his first experiences in an audience, to his first steps on a stage. He did this with much humor, and some of his anecdotes were very funny, and others very moving. He ended the first part discussing how he came out as gay during a radio interview in 1969, then had to go tell his step-mother before the interview aired. She told him that she had known for 35 years.

At one point, he played a character from a pantomime, Dame Twankey, and distributed items to the audience: candy, fruit, and I got a cucumber.

Twankey

For the second part of the play, he asked the audience members to call out the names of Shakespeare plays. Being in Stratford-upon-Avon, it was clear that the audience would know all the plays, and as we called them out, he would take copies of the plays out of his skip, then either tell anecdotes about performances of the plays, or recite speeches from some of them. This felt like an intimate discussion of the plays with someone who knew many of them very well. For some he would talk about performing small parts, and for others he had little to say. “Troilus and Cressida? I have nothing to say about Troilus and Cressida.”

Finally, he ended with a speech from The Tempest, and the house lights went down. They came on and everyone stood to give him a rousing ovation. He begged us to sit down again, then recited a speech from Sir Thomas More, a play written in the 1590s by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, with revisions by others. The speech, written by Shakespeare, and the only dramatic writing extant in Shakespeare’s hand, is very moving as it speaks of how immigrants should not be victimized. (You can see a video of McKellen reciting this speech here.)

Again, the crowd rose to its feet to applaud this retrospective performance by one of the great actors of our time. McKellen then grabbed a yellow bin from his skip, and asked for donations. He exited the theater into the lobby where people stopped by to donate a bit, and to thank him for his performance.

Ian

While Ian McKellen is still sprightly, he’d already announced that his King Lear would be his last major Shakespeare role; perhaps after this tour, he will bow out from the stage, but it would be a great loss.

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