Moving away briefly from my weekly visits to “The Nash”, this time went I went for a production which was filmed by National Theatre Live even if it was not actually at that theatre itself. Amazon Prime Video have struck a deal whereby they are showing a brief series of some of the greatest hits to come out of the in cinema/at home recordings which have been made in recent years. There’s a double dose of Cumberbatch (Hamlet and Frankenstein), Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sensation Fleabag and an evening with one of our greatest living thesps; this is the one I was interested in.
Only one paragraph in and I’ve already treble checked that I’ve spelled McKellen correctly – apparently people are always getting it wrong as we learn from one of several running gags which pepper the performance of Ian McKellen On Stage. This was the renowned actor’s 80th birthday present to himself when he took his one man show to 80+ theatres across the country often playing very intimate venues. All this, of course, was pre-pandemic as now the solo show which precludes the need for social distancing on stage seems to be ubiquitous. And as McKellen has developed an astonishing repertoire he has plenty of juicy stories to tell. Quite apart from Shakespeare there are modern classics, films, a hit sitcom, a stint in pantomime and even ten weeks in Coronation Street to reflect upon. McKellen both starts and finishes the show with wizardly doings, moving in a through line from Gandalf to Prospero and in the process works his own theatrical magic.
The show starts with McKellen’s reminiscences about Peter Jackson’s six Tolkien inspired films, how he was often mistaken for Michael Gambon as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise (“I played the real wizard”) and in a delightful segment gets a youngster up from the audience to have a selfie taken wielding the sword and wearing the grey hat. And it is this sort of rapport with the audience which rapidly becomes the trademark of this encounter, none more so than when he gives a brief masterclass in Dame-acting from his time as Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s Aladdin (which I fondly remember seeing). In between the turns he fills the show with tales of his boyhood and student days telling us how he got into acting by a circuitous route; apparently his prime ambition once upon a time was to go into hotel management – what a loss that would have been. Then there’s reflections on his changing attitude towards his own sexuality with an hilarious anecdote about how he came out to his stepmother Gladys and then took her with him to Buckingham Palace when he received his knighthood. There’s also time for some poetry courtesy of T.S. Eliot “by way of one A.L. Webber” and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The second half is entirely devoted to Shakespeare. This has an interesting and presumably ever changing format as McKellen invites the audience to call out any titles they can remember; they eventually work their way through the canon. For the majority of the plays, he has an anecdote about being in a production or working alongside his own heroes such as Olivier and Gielgud. He isn’t particularly over-reverential; he is clearly mystified by Measure For Measure and has nothing at all to say about Troilus And Cressida. For several of the plays (As You Like It, Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Cymbeline) he has speeches which he launches into. Perhaps the most interesting is Hamlet in which he is currently playing the lead at the sprightly age of 81. But of course, he may not be playing the role like he does here for, above all else, McKellen believes in keeping the Bard live and in the moment. And it’s intriguing how he manages to show the continued relevance of Shakespeare to his own world and that of the rest of us.
McKellen gives very good value with a show that lasts 150 minutes and runs the gamut of emotions and styles. The production is directed by his partner Sean Matthias although I’m guessing the actor may well have had firm ideas about what to do and how to do it without too much prompting. The set is very simple and starts out with just an actor’s skip from which Mary Poppins like McKellen produces all manner of furniture and props. But mostly it’s just the actor, his voice and his compelling presence. And really who could ask for anything more? Now, I’d better just quadruple check that vital spelling before hitting publish!
Ian McKellen On Stage is available via Amazon Prime Video – click here
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