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  • Eddie Hewitt

Sir Ian McKellen - on stage and screen

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian. How can you possibly have so much fun on stage when you are playing such a tragic role? And yet, as King Lear, you are magnificent. Mad, sad, and funny; angry, wretched and betrayed; heroic and pathetic. In all the right moments, throughout all the play.

Sir Ian McKellen - photo (c) Andrew Medichini

Having a ball, off stage and on

It’s almost thirty years since I first saw you tread the boards, as Iago at the Young Vic. You were despicable. Brilliantly so. Willard White’s Othello had no chance with you. I hear that Sir Mark Rylance is playing it for larks at the Globe. You had your own inimitable blend of outward charm and apparent mischief, but a sneer rather than a chuckle, and a hell-bent descent into all consuming jealousy.

As Iago in Othello at the Young Vic, with Imogen Stubbs as Desdemona (1989)

Photo (c) Donald Cooper

Around the same time I was captivated by Scandal. No, not the Olivia Pope show with gladiators and white hats, but the Profumo affair in the sixties. On the silver screen with the leading lady characters Christine Keeler and Many Rice-Davies, you shocked us all, just as the real government minister must have done before I was born. You were debonair and charming in that film. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

As John Profumo with Christine Keeler (Joanne Whalley) in Scandal (1989)

Back to Shakespeare. Richard the Third

Another outing on the big screen. You have a knack for playing villains and those who have been presented throughout history as such. Those on the edge, the marginalised. And yet, also a knack for being, at the same time, jolly pleasant. As Horrible Histories put it, “I’m a nice guy”.

As Richard III (1995). I have a hunch Shakespeare was right: he wasn't really

a nice guy

And then came X-Men. From 2000 to 2014 Magneto dangerously hovered on the nasty side of the mutants. Stunning yet again. You play villains and semi-villains so well. Sequels are rarely successful in my eyes, but this series was an exception.

When The Last Stand came out in 2006, it was too soon. Eight years later, Days of Future Past was a huge relief. But again, it was another painful farewell.

As Magneto in the final X-Men film starring Sir Ian (2014)

Shortly after the rise of the mutants, Middle Earth appeared and the role of Gandalf beckoned. You became a wizard five times over, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 to 2003) and later on in two instalments of The Hobbit (2012/13). Plus associated video games appearances.

I’m sorry to say I couldn’t keep awake in the first film, too much mindless CGI and all that charging around across so much beautiful scenery in New Zealand. But that wasn’t your fault. It was mine. Or maybe it was Peter Jackson's. And then, I refused to watch The Hobbit. Martin Freeman was not my Bilbo Baggins, he was Tim from The Office, and I didn't want the movie to ruin the book, my childhood favourite. But you would have been my Gandalf. Somehow you never made it into the Harry Potter cast. I suppose there was only one role that would have been fitting, and Dumbledore was taken, twice. I guess it's a bit like Star Trek v Star Wars. One wizarding role or another.

As Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring

More recently, back on stage, playing in Waiting for Godot, on Broadway in 2013 and originally at the Haymarket in 2009, alongside your old mucka, Sir Patrick Stewart. Who could imagine a more engaging double act. And with Simon Callow with you at the Haymarket, the cast was even more wondrous.

As Estragon in Waiting for Godot with Sir Patrick Stewart (Vladimir)

on Broadway (2013)

And then you re-ignited the bromance on the couch on the Graham Norton Show. That was nice. And I put it to you again, how can anyone have so much fun? This time in a relaxed, happy environment of course. With so much banter and friendship. I too would thoroughly enjoy being in Jean Luc Picard’s presence.

On the couch with Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) and Sir Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier).

I see that Sir Patrick is coming back as Jean-Luc. I’m sure he’s been inspired by your boundless dramatic energy to make it so, again and again, on screen.

There have been many more films and plays along the way. I have merely picked out my favourites.

And so, back to King Lear. They say that if you’re old enough to play King Lear, you’re too old. Nonsense. You’ve managed it three times, at least. 2007 with the RSC, 2016 in the Chichester Festival Theatre and again in 2018 at the Duke of York’s theatre, reprising the Chichester production.

Too old? Swansong? Dead soon? Dead tired maybe. Just as Mr Burns was in The Simpsons when he was carried off the battlefield on a stretcher. Just like Monty, you have plenty of fine years ahead of you.

And you're just right for the role. This time and probably all the other times. Not in your nature, but in your brilliant capacity to get into this most problematic of characters. Angry, foolish, very foolish, stubborn, traumatised, mad, penitent, and shattered. It was especially nice to see you enjoying a solo encore, to a standing ovation, at the Duke of York’s, in between two stirring ovations for the full cast. Well deserved, poignant.

A week later, I read about your misfortunes en route to a subsequent performance. Sadly unable to perform in the afternoon show, you worried you had let people down, but everything I have read on Twitter suggested the audience thought they got far more for their money by just listening to you and being in your presence. As if King Lear's ego wasn't massaged enough by Regan and Goneril! I'm joking. Your dedication and humility are legendary, and you deserve all the tributes and kindness that come your way.

A simple explanation of an unfortunate event, via Twitter

Your message was liked by thousands. Appreciated and returned with favour by devoted playgoers, none of whom wanted a refund.

A final few words. I've gone way overboard already, I dare say. But I'm happy to pay tribute to a true Shakespearean. A genuine movie star who is blessed with style, gravitas, humility, and much, much more. The finest actor of your generation. I don't think that’s going too far.

See the Connected Cultures review of King Lear

© Eddie Hewitt 2018


Ian McKellen - official home page

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