COMING OF AGE
At 68, Ian McKellen believes he’s old enough to play Lear, writes Peter Craven
WITH his grey beard and his eyes narrowed to squint at the manifold treacheries of the world, Ian McKellen looks every bit the theatre knight, at the height of his powers and playing the most demanding role on the English stage.
He has been playing the title role in King Lear , in a production directed by Trevor Nunn at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new Courtyard Theatre at Stratford- upon- Avon. It, and a production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull , in which McKellen will play Sorin, are coming to Melbourne’s Arts Centre in July.
The actor has impeccable Shakespeare credentials. He was the most striking Richard II since John Gielgud and the most notable Macbeth — with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth — since Laurence Olivier. So what’s it like to be finally climbing this mountain, which the essayist Charles Lamb thought unscalable?
Has anyone but Paul Scofield unambiguously succeeded in it in living memory?
‘‘ I’d seen that you can’t play Lear unless you’re possessed by it, really, so it is very demanding,’’ he says, at his five- level riverside apartment in London’s Limehouse.
‘‘ It’s the emotional journey which is draining. And you’re not let off the hook. The part gets increasingly more dependent on your emotional imagination.’’ That imagination has to encompass a parent’s grief at the death of a child as well as the massive derangement and domestic fury of William Shakespeare’s representation of family life gone wrong.
Asked why he had waited so long to play Lear when Scofield took on the role at 40, McKellen, 68, says: ‘‘ Well, I couldn’t possibly have played it at 40. I wouldn’t have been in touch with it at all. I couldn’t have done it. And that seems to me about the right age to be dealing with all the younger parts like Macbeth. But Lear’s 81. If you’re half that age you have to spend half your time acting old. I don’t have to do that any more.’’ He adds: ‘‘ He’s a very vigorous 81. The last thing he does is kill somebody.’’
It’s a role that requires an extraordinary degree of emotional nakedness and McKellen, who is by inclination a man of some shyness and reserve, strips naked in Nunn’s production when Lear cries, ‘‘ Off, off you lendings!’’
‘‘ When people ask me about that, I say, ‘ I don’t take my trousers down, it’s King Lear who takes his trousers down.’ ’’
Well before it became a reality, the idea of McKellen playing Lear caused a murmur of excitement around the world. When I spoke to him just before his 2004 season of Strindberg’s Dance of Death at the Sydney Festival, all he would say was that he had a standing arrangement with Nunn ( the former RSC head famous for directing such musicals as Cats and Les Miserables ) that if either of them were to do Lear , they would do it together.
He has spent most of his time essaying the great roles of the classical stage, from Coriolanus and Richard III to Henrik Ibsen’s Dr Stockman in An Enemy of the People .
Then, like lightning, a film career came in late middle age with Richard III and Gods and Monsters , which convinced an international audience that McKellen was one of the greatest actors on earth, and one who — like Scofield or Maggie Smith — had stooped to conquer the medium of film.
Total fame came with the plummiest old wiseguy role since Alec Guinness’s Obi- Wan Kenobi in Star Wars . McKellen was Gandalf in the 10 hours of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and, by way of contrast, Magneto in The X- Men as well as the best thing in The Da Vinci Code .
But Lear is a role that commands all of an actor’s powers. There’s the overwhelming last scene in which he has to enter with Cordelia, dead, in his arms. ‘‘ I do think of people who’ve died in that last scene, but I don’t have to really do anything more than believe that — I can barely say it — that Romola Garai [ who plays Cordelia] has died. And I couldn’t bear that. So, no, I have not been stirring up stuff in myself, I don’t think, no.’’
At the same time McKellen has had to equip his Lear with a background that can sustain his conception of him.
‘‘ You have to provide a backstory of your own,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t know whether you noticed, but I wore two wedding rings. One is for Regan and Goneril’s mother, and the other is for Cordelia’s mother, who died in childbirth. So when I’m preparing to give her her dowry, I’m looking at the girl I fell in love with.’’
It’s fascinating to hear how much he needs to imagine a web of intimacies as well as the way a theatrical point can take on the most intense dramatic shading as he reconfigures it into feeling.
McKellen’s voice, that very beautiful voice with its aristocratic locutions ( and its faint hint of a northern warmth beneath layers of ice), has a sort of halting simplicity as he talks about his Lear. ‘‘ It’s once- upon- a- time,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was an old man who had three daughters — [ that’s] more the spirit of the thing. But if you’re playing the old man, then you have to have worked out some sort of rationality behind it all. I think everything that happens to Lear is not just because of the person he is and because of the children he’s brought up, a rather dysfunctional family, but also because he’s old and also because his plans are ill- thought out . . .
‘‘ And then the other big influence on his behaviour is his link with the gods. It seems to me inescapable that this man is a god- king. Or a priest- king, let’s say.’’
This tallies with McKellen’s long- ago performance as Richard II, whom he played as a king who really believed in his divine right.
‘‘ Well, yes, it’s the notion of kingship we can’t understand today or relate to. This links Lear obviously with Richard II. They’re both men who have depended on bolstering up their power with some sense of the numinous to which they have a special connection.
‘‘ Richard II says that he wants to taste grief and that he needs friends. Well, you could say the same of this silly old man who scares off his best friends . . . It’s not a great king dying but it’s a doting father who has nothing left to live for.
‘‘ And the whole business of the gods. When he says at the end of the final storm scene, ‘ Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ . . . he finds they don’t exist. Well, for that man to come to that conclusion is like the Dalai Lama deciding there’s [ no point to any spiritual conviction].’’
McKellen says he finds King Lear an astonishing play for a Christian to have written. Most parents, faced with the terrible death of
Cordelia, would think how terrible it would be for their own child to die.
McKellen is a homosexual and has no children of his own. Does that affect the performance of a man who has campaigned for statues of Oscar Wilde, ripped up pages of Leviticus and sent up Jason Donovan for being offended at being thought gay? A glint enters his eye and the hesitance is replaced by hauteur.
‘‘ Well, I think you’d call it acting, wouldn’t you?’’ Clearly we’re not going to have any of this ‘ It’s a heterosexual thing’ muddying the waters of King Lear .
Having drawn himself up to his full height, McKellen strives to explain. ‘‘ I’m used to being in situations that I’ve not come across in life. But, as I say, I can feel paternal towards Romola. People do say to me, ‘ But you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child’. Nor do most parents, actually. They can only imagine what it would be like. Well, I do exactly the same.’’
An actor, he says, is ‘‘ only a conduit’’ because the audience is using its own imagination. ‘‘ The climactic scene of grief is one Shakespeare has been preparing them for, but not necessarily through the performance of the actors.’’
Although the Nunn productions of King Lear and The Seagull have been running at the Courtyard Theatre since late March, they were officially opened only on May 31 because of the severe leg injury of Frances Barber, who plays Goneril in Lear and Madame Arkadina in The Seagull . There has been considerable controversy about the RSC’s effective ban on press reviews until so far into the run.
It’s worth bearing in mind that Barber’s Goneril is integral to Nunn’s conception of the play because he sees her as being temperamen- tally very much Lear’s daughter. And Arkadina is the mature star role in the Chekhov play. Lear, of course, requires a great actor who is unusually suited to the role.
On stage, McKellen looks pretty dangerously mad from the outset. ‘‘ He’s mad,’’ the actor says, ‘‘ but everything he says about society is not mad, it’s sane.’’
McKellen is aware that his Lear is not scaleddown but he says this is because of the size of the Courtyard Theatre and the language of the play.
‘‘ There’s nevertheless big stuff in the play and rhetoric and most of it’s very public, at least as far as Lear’s concerned. He’s never alone on stage, which is unusual for a character like this. He’s a man who’s functioned in public all his life. And when that’s taken away from him, he’s still making speeches.’’ He admits, too, that he is overwhelmed by the play’s ending when he performs it: ‘‘ I don’t find it easy to pull out of [ it] at the end of the evening.’’
Nothing could be a greater contrast to playing Lear than playing Sorin in The Seagull , a role McKellen is sharing with William Gaunt ( Gloucester in the Shakespeare play).
Sorin is as mild, charming and ineffectual as Lear is bull- like, berserk and bloody- minded. He is a timid old charmer, the brother of a famous actor, and nothing has worked out for him.
‘‘ Again, I don’t pass any judgment on Sorin,’’ McKellen says. ‘‘ I just try and explain what it feels like to be him. He’s clearly a disappointed man. His youngest sister is this big star. And one of his ambitions was to be a great speaker. I think by the time we get to Melbourne I may be playing him with a slight stammer.
‘‘ He’s like his sister, but he has no outlet for it. He couldn’t even get it together to propose. Oh, unless you think that he’s gay. Someone said, ‘ Oh, you’re playing him as if he’s gay’, and I said ‘ Am I?’ ’’ McKellen laughs. ‘‘ I don’t think he’s leading a closet gay life.’’
McKellen says the Lear and Seagull tour has ‘‘ not been billed as the farewell performance . . . but it feels a bit like that.’’
He says he enjoys his fame. ‘‘ Well, you’d rather be successful than not, I suppose. I mean you want your work to be enjoyed and if it can be enjoyed by a lot of people, that’s very satisfactory.’’
It’s nice for a shy chap like him that when he walks into a room he doesn’t have to make the running because people know who he is.
And he loves the fact that Gandalf makes him a particular favourite with boys between the ages of 10 and 14. ‘‘ And to be part of their young lives as Gandalf: the grandfather, the godfather, the good man.’’ He muses for a moment. ‘‘ That’s lovely, isn’t it?’’
And then he adds, glancingly: ‘‘ Rather than, say, being popular, being famous, for having played a cannibal or something.’’ Peter Craven travelled to London as a guest of the Victorian Arts Centre. King Lear continues at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford- upon- Avon until June 21, The Seagull until June 23. The Melbourne season of both plays runs at the Arts Centre, July 28- August 4.
You can’t play Lear unless you’re possessed by it’:
Ian McKellen in the RSC production, main picture and above left and right, and as himself, above centre