Celebrated actor Sir Ian McKellen turned 80 earlier this year. To mark the occasion, he launched a one-man show, Ian McKellen On Stage, and took it on tour in the UK. Fortunately, a limited West End run is currently underway at the Harold Pinter Theatre through January 5.
McKellen’s set is very simple and welcoming: a red carpet and a box to start out. The box is covered with theatre stickers to indicate where his tour has been. It’s reminiscent of the old wicker boxes in which traveling actors would carry their props. As the performance continues, McKellen periodically pops back to the box for furniture, books, and other items.
The production, directed by Sean Mathias, consists of stories from McKellen’s life and recitations from selected plays and literature. McKellen devotes a lot of time to Shakespeare, but there’s also D.H. Lawrence, Tolkien, Gerard Manley Hopkins. In essence, it’s a brilliant lesson on acting from this great actor.
Speaking of Tolkien, the Gandalf versus Balrog scene is how McKellen opens the evening. He even calls up a young person from the back of the audience to come up and hold Glamdring, Gandalf’s sword. The Lord of the Rings segment continues with delightful moments, as he shares stories about the late Christopher Lee. “I always thought I should play Gandalf!” he exclaims in the deep voice of Lee.
Then McKellen delves into his early life. He recounts and reenacts how he was introduced to theatre in Wigan and Bolton, capturing the amazement and wonder of the first experiences remarkably. He reveals that he considered careers in hotel management, culinary arts, and even journalism before he decided to become a professional actor. I shudder to think what the theatre world would have missed had McKellen picked another profession. His narrative moves on to Cambridge and his early career, which included a nine-month stint in Sir Laurence Olivier’s company. Cue his Olivier voice.
McKellen dedicates substantial time to his gay rights activism and how he finally came out at age 47. “The closet is not a glamorous place,” he reflected solemnly at one point.
There’s ample opportunity for audience participation. McKellen reprises his old role of Widow Twankey from an Aladdin pantomime, throwing candies and fruit up into the audience.
In the second half of the show, he asks people to call out the names of Shakespeare plays. He stacks the books accordingly and offers his opinions on them. For example he quips, “I always thought Othello should really be called Iago.”
McKellen’s Shakespeare recitations included snippets from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Cymbeline, and much more. All of the performances were extraordinary because he commits himself entirely to the parts: voice, eyes, and the movements of his body. For each character, he assumes a different walk, posture, and gestures. In addition, McKellen takes great care in the pace of his monologues and particularly in how he enunciates the words. He rolls his Rs and is very crisp with other consonants so that one gets every word.
If I had to identify my favorite part of the show, it’s the reflections Ian McKellen offers about his own work. The backstory of various plays is insightful not only in that he outlines his approach to each role, but also because he identifies the lessons he learned. He goes so far as to criticize himself, demonstrating how a younger Ian McKellen delivered lines and portrayed men in their 80s. The insights are invaluable to both aspiring actors and arts enthusiasts alike.
If you are going to be in London soon, I highly encourage you to see Ian McKellen On Stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre on Panton Street. Visit the ATG site for more information on booking tickets.