COM­ING OF AGE

At 68, Ian McKellen be­lieves he’s old enough to play Lear, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

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