Long live the man, the voice, and the legend!
Ian McKellen on Stage has received the plaudits it justly deserves for fêting one of the greatest actors of his generation, whose grace and agility belie his eighty years. Touring Great Britain to celebrate the many people and places that have influenced and shaped him, McKellen invites his audience to share his passions and to glimpse his life treading the boards and behind the camera.
McKellen is a human chameleon, one moment tall, the next short; one moment old, the next young; one moment raging, the next simpering; and all with the verve and dexterity of a man half his age.
His name is spelt with an e at the end not an a, as he humorously points out. On Stage showcases his extraordinary life, through repertory theatre, chances taken and lost, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Aladdin, and along the way poetry (Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot) and working alongside a host of famous actors and actresses familiar to all: Christopher Lee, Alan Rickman, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Dame Julie Walters. Although the mention of one or the other may depend on the moment, it’s what the audience has (partly) come to hear.
Recently, a British TV documentary was broadcast consisting of light-hearted banter between four of British theatre’s most famed dames: Judi Dench, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, and Maggie Smith. One can imagine a similar documentary with Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, and Alan Bennett, equally entertaining and similarly titled: Nothing Like A Dame.
Everyone has their favourite McKellen “moment”, from Richard III’s opening speech to Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring – stunningly reprised without digital effects in Ian McKellen on Stage. From a plethora of possibilities, here are two. In the 2000 TV film of David Copperfield, McKellen inhabits rather than plays the vicious headmaster Mr Creakle, who has to inform David of his mother’s death. He does so with sadistic glee while munching on a wedge of Lancashire cheese.
And in All Is True (2018), written by Ben Elton and directed by Kenneth Branagh, a picturesque and sentimental drama based on Shakespeare’s last years in Stratford-upon-Avon, McKellen plays the Earl of Southampton, for whom the playwright wrote his Sonnets. Shakespeare recalls Sonnet 29 to the now aging Earl, “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings” – shyly making it sound like a declaration of love. Southampton repeats the entire Sonnet, with an inflection here and an emphasis there that change its entire meaning. It is a masterclass in acting.
In the 1950s, the BBC made and broadcast recordings of the stage and film actor Robert Donat reciting poems. Hearing Ian McKellen speak Sonnet 29 suggests that the BBC could do worse than commission him to record at least a selection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a tribute to his amber voice, his infinite skills, and his legacy as one of the great British actors in what has become a very long line.