IAN McKELLEN on Stage: with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and YOU
The REP, Birmingham, Friday 21st June, 2019
It begins with a reading from The Lord of the Rings; you know the bit, where Gandalf faces down the Balrog on that narrow subterranean bridge so that the rest of the Fellowship can get away. McKellen treats us to a vivid piece of storytelling – the first of the night – the battered paperback merely a prop. He has it by heart and puts his heart into it. It’s spellbinding stuff and I’m almost sorry that he doesn’t do the entire saga!
Gandalf is the role that brought one of our finest actors to global attention but, as McKellen reminds us, his career has been long and varied. The first half of this retrospective brims with anecdotes, from film and theatre, of his early life in Bolton – a three-year-old McKellen visiting Manchester’s Palace Theatre proves fateful, when a production of Peter Pan alerts the young boy to the magic of the stage…
From a huge cardboard trunk, plastered with stickers from theatres this tour has already visited, McKellen takes out souvenirs, prompts for each anecdote. A young man is beckoned from the audience to try out Glamdring, Gandalf’s renowned sword. At other times, McKellen is keen to include us, en masse, because of our shared love of the theatre. Audience members murmur in nostalgic recognition as he throws out names of actors, many of whom are long since gone. The REP itself merits special mention for its history and influence on many a career. The story of receiving his knighthood is played out with delicious comedic skill. A real treat is to get a glimpse of his Twankey, as he recalls his time in pantomime at the Old Vic.
Using only the warmth of his personality and, of course, that marvellous voice, McKellen has us in the palm of his hand. There are no video clips, no projections, just the objects from the trunk. The stories often come with punchlines, delivered with exquisite timing; the readings, of works by T S Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are captivating, electrifying. The story of how, after many years, McKellen came out, driven to it by Section 28, is inspiring and heartening.
The second half is devoted to Shakespeare. McKellen unpacks stacks of books from his trunk and invites us to name all 37 of the plays. Each title comes with an anecdote, an interesting titbit, or a performance of a key scene. Hamlet and Macbeth get especial attention with lengthy extracts, but it is the eulogy from Cymbeline (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun) that is especially powerful. It’s an absolute treat and again I am almost disappointed he doesn’t recite the complete works!
Designed to commemorate the actor’s 80th birthday, this tour is a wonderful opportunity to spend some time in the presence of a national treasure. It’s a privilege to hear him perform, entertaining to listen to that wicked sense of humour, and a joy to see him in action.
A thoroughly lovely evening, joyous, poignant and life-affirming. We need more positive forces like Sir Ian in these benighted times. We need more nights at the theatre to bind and unite us during these dark days of division.