We’re chuffed by the exciting news that Ian McKellenwill be playing King Learat the Duke of York’s Theatre later this year. One of Britain’s (and the world’s) finest actors, he’s had an illustrious career both on stage and on screen. He’s had a particular love for Shakespeare roles over the years, and he’s said Lear may be his ‘last big Shakespeare part’, so we’ve tracked back through the archives to bring you a short history of McKellen’s Shakespearean roles.
Early in McKellen’s career, the actor played Claudio at The Old Vic in director Franco Zeffirelli’s Much Ado. Albert Finney and Derek Jacobi played Dons Pedro and John, with Dame Maggie Smith in the role of Beatrice, and Robert Stephens as Benedick. It was McKellen’s first performance with the National Theatre company, but actually put him off Shakespeare, and saw him leave to perform in a number of modern plays.
King Lear (1974)
Wimbledon Theatre and UK tour
McKellen’s first brush with Lear came in David William’s 1974 production which toured the UK for five months in 1974. McKellen played Edgar, a role he described as “another Shakespearean who goes on a heroic journey to maturity and self-awareness”. On his performance, he said: “In preparing my disguise as Mad Tom, I flung off all my clothes and stood briefly onstage as the bare fork'd man. This was a simple image to counterpoint the impenetrable obscurity of Edgar's language - and didn't often get a snigger.”
McKellen played John the Bastard in the West End production of King John for the RSC in 1975. John Barton directed the cast which also included Jeffrey Dench, David Suchet, and Emrys James in the title role. McKellen took over the role from Richard Pasco in the play.
Romeo and Juliet/Macbeth (1976)
Royal Shakespeare Company
McKellen acted with director Trevor Nunn during his undergraduate days at Cambridge University. Nunn took over from Peter Hall at the helm of the RSC, and invited McKellen to join the company, which he regretfully was not in a position to do. However, he said the offer to play Romeo to Francesca Annis’ Juliet (in his words, “the most beautiful woman I have ever worked with”) and Macbeth with Judi Dench was ‘irresistible’. This fulfilled one of McKellen’s childhood fantasies, as he used to cycle to the theatre as a boy where he would queue early in the morning for cheap (12p) tickets standing at the back of the stalls.
McKellen was asked to return to the RSC after a number of years away from Stratford-upon-Avon, but he was more tempted by Peter Hall's invitation to act at the National Theatre’s new home on the South Bank – just two miles from his London home. He played the title role in Hall’s Coriolanus in the Olivier, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor. The production placed a number of audience members on stage, but it wasn’t such a successful move, with one member asking McKellen to sign her programme during a performance!
McKellen toured the world in the early 90s in the role of King Richard in Richard Eyre’s Richard III, taking the production to Japan, Germany, Egypt, Italy, France, the Czech Republic and the US. McKellen says it was a fulfilling experience which saw Parisian students "sleeping out all night in the hope of return tickets” and “15-minute standing ovations in Hamburg”.
The Tempest (1999)
West Yorkshire Playhouse
McKellen worked with the director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Jude Kelly, to assemble a company for three plays in the autumn of 1998, and together they settled on The Seagull, Present Laughter and The Tempest. McKellen played Prospero in the latter, a compromise after his desire to play a panto dame fell through (a dream he fulfilled in the 2004 Old Vic pantomime of Aladdin). McKellen claims The Tempest is a play that satisfies its audience, rather than the actors.
“After an early show, when I was feeling down and guilty that I wasn’t at my best, I met two women in the theatre lobby. One of them had clearly been crying. Clutching me, with one arm round her younger companion, she half-sobbed: ‘I didn’t expect to see a play all about....’ (presumably referring to some dark personal experience) “... about... rec-on-cili-ation...” So that was alright”
McKellen reunited with director Trevor Nunn, and returned to the RSC after a long 18 years apart from the company, to triumphantly take on Lear in a landmark production. It toured the world, ending with a run in the West End, and was filmed for television, resulting in an Emmy nomination for the actor. The production ran in the West End at the New London Theatre at the end of 2007, and McKellen’s performance was described by critics as “superlative” (Benedict Nightingale, The Times) and “the production's crown jewel performance” (Marilyn Stasio, Variety).
Ten years on from the RSC show, McKellen took on the role of King Lear again, this time in the quaint West Sussex town of Chichester. Under Jonathan Munby’s direction, McKellen played Lear in the theatre’s 283-capacity studio, the Minerva. The production was, again, lauded by the critics who heaped praise on McKellen’s controlled performance. Prior to the play’s opening, McKellen told the media it could be his “last big Shakespearean part”, but the actor will be reprising the role as the play comes to London’s Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End this summer.