Hello duckies! It’s been ages but rest assured I am still here and still plugging away at the Shakespeare… The last thing I went to see was Ian McKellen’s (surprisingly long) UK tour, which was a lovely evening of a very talented man reminiscing and (entirely justifiably!) showing off.
While the first half was general, the second half was all Shakespeare – a nicely theatrical bit of action where a copy of every play was on a table, to be called out by the audience* and then recited (in part) and reminisced over. Naturally there was some artfulness in which names Sir Ian heard and when, but nonetheless it was an extraordinary act of memory and an astonishing picture of 60 years of British theatre.
It turns out the only play he hasn’t seen is Two Gentlemen of Verona (which, to be fair, I have only seen when either me or the cast was drunk – but you can get all the good lines from Shakespeare in Love). I was heartened to find out he’s only done a condensed version of Henry VI (two plays rather than three) – not that I’ve done any yet!**
Taking the moments that stuck with me in biographical, rather than dramatical order, he spoke about standing up in his Cambridge interview and reciting “Once more unto the breach” – but at a volume designed to reach the back seats of the raffia-chair filled theatre he had performed it at in Bolton, rather than that you might expect in a fellow’s set – but nonetheless he got his place and it seemed to me he enjoyed his time at Cambridge a lot (he certainly managed to fit in a lot of Shakespeare – helped by the fact that every summer they were used to back up professional casts – this led him onto Shallow’s incredibly miserable speech from Henry IV Part Two about how all the companions of his youth are dead – “Jesu, Jesu, the mad days that I have spent! and to see how many of my old acquaintance are dead!” – probably worryingly true for Ian, but certainly a common old-person complaint – I remember my grandmother doing the same.
Ian managed the most astonishing name-drop when talking about Much Ado About Nothing (he doesn’t like Claudio – I knew he was sound). He was Claudio in a production at the Old Vic under the auspices of Sir Laurence Olivier (the formative years of the National Theatre), who wasn’t in the production but Robert Stephens, Edward Petherbridge, Frank Finlay, Derek Jacobi and Albert Finney were… Looking it up, it was produced by Zeffirelli – and I believe it was the production where a little footage surfaced and I talked about it here. I didn’t catch Ian mentioning Maggie Stephens – indeed the only actress I remember him mentioning working with all evening was Judi Dench…
There was a nice touch of ego on why he left the National Theatre ensemble – talking about the quality he was up against (see cast list above for proof!) and not getting the part of Richard II, which he then did get it at the Prospect Theatre company. He spoke rather longer about doing Edward II in the same repertoire as it were, and certainly went down the byways of gay Shakespearean characters. He spent longest talking about Antonio, the titular Merchant of Venice, and then read out that wonderful speech of Aufidius’ from Coriolanus.
Know thou first,
I lov’d the maid I married; never man
Sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
I feel he left out Antonio, the sea captain from Twelfth Night who follows Sebastian to Orsino, despite the risk to himself:
But come what may, I do adore thee so
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.
Similarly he went on at some length about Hamlet – not, as I recall, reciting speeches, but just because he loves the character of Hamlet, because Hamlet loves the theatre as much as we do (although it makes me think of the backseat directing he does: “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” We can all be a little bit guilty of that, can’t we?)
Ian has a lovely claim to be the only living person to originate a lead by William Shakespeare – when he played Sir Thomas More. And he gave us the speech the speech the speech which is in Shakespeare’s handwriting and which is still so relevant.*** In slightly bigger claims to fame, he gave us just a tiny section of the (cracking) opener to Richard III which he so notably played and was very gracious about the whole cast he got to work with. King Lear he glossed over – no problem, it should have been fresh in everyone’s mind…
He ended the evening with The Tempest, which I always find funny, because it’s such a beautiful ending, but it isn’t the ending of the play:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
It was a magical night, and hope it’s not the end for Ian.
* I was on tenterhooks ready to provide the names everyone else forgot – but it was a VERY erudite audience and I wasn’t needed…
** Apparently he did a radio version of Henry VIII. Yes, I am intrigued.
*** No hint that Ian is anything other than a Stratfordian – but possibly he went to the same exhibition at the British Library that I did…