A Screenplay Written by
Ian McKellen & Richard Loncraine
"If you really want to play Richard III on film, you'd better write the screenplay." Richard Eyre, director of the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain (RNT), spoke this as a warning but with a twinkle in his eye, knowing that I would be foolhardy enough to pick up the challenge. Eighteen months earlier, his production of Richard III had opened at the RNT's Lyttelton Theatre in London and then toured the United Kingdom. We had crossed Europe, from west to east, en route to Cairo and Tokyo. After 150 performances, I was reluctant to let go of our success and so, with some cast changes, we revived the show and continued, till we found ourselves in New York on 1 June 1992, starting a fifteen- week tour of the United States. The production would finally close in Los Angeles.
When the run ends, a theatre production survives only in the fading memories of those who were there in person - in the audience, onstage or backstage. Previous Richard IIIs, like David Garrick and Henry Irving, even my contemporaries like Al Pacino and Tony Sher, still trail glory but, despite prints and photographs, memoirs and memorabilia, their success is no longer tangible. Yet Laurence Olivier triumphantly transferred his Richard III from stage to screen.
The most obvious way of preserving a live performance is the least satisfactory. Our Richard III had already been fixed for posterity on 26 May 1992, when three cameras were let into the Lyttelton Theatre, as part of the British Theatre Museum's experiment in saving plays for the future, by recording them during a scheduled public performance. It was agreed that the three separate videotapes would never be edited and could only ever be viewed simultaneously by a visitor to the Museum in Covent Garden. The adjacent screens show the full stage, the principals in each scene, and a close-up of whoever is speaking, so that the viewer, rather like a theatre audience, can "edit" the production, by switching attention between the three images. This triple record may be adequate for academic study, visually augmenting the stage manager's prompt-book that tabulates the actors' moves. It does not, unfortunately, capture much of the impact of the original occasion.
Innumerable Shakespeare stage productions have been more subtly photographed and then edited for network television. I've been in four of these. In 1969, having played Shakespeare's Richard II on tour and in London, the actors of Prospect Theatre were invited by BBC TV to reproduce our performance, as best we could, for their video cameras, within the simplest of studio settings. Viewing the result twenty-five years on, I am embarrassed. The interpretation of the play by the director, Richard Cottrell, and by his cast withstands time well enough and, maybe, outclasses subsequent productions in intelligence and insight. It is, however, very poor television. My own performance is accurately recorded but so too is a theatricality that bombasts the viewers, in my determination to excite and enthrall them.
It was much the same with my Hamlet two years later, which Robert Chetwyn directed, again for Prospect Theatre. The televised version now looks less like a play and more like a dramatised commentary running alongside the action - interesting enough for students of the text but not credible for anyone hoping to meet Hamlet rather than Ian-McKellen-playing-Hamlet. In 1978, when we came to televise the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC's) studio version of Macbeth, there was the possibility of improvement.
This chamber production had been devised for The Other Place, the now-demolished tin hut, in the car park along from the RSC's main theatre on the banks of the River Avon. The director was Trevor Nunn; the designer was John Napier. Years before their joint talents spectacularly exploded on world theatre with Cats, Les Miserables and Sunset Boulevard, they placed a cast of twelve actors within a magic circle painted on the plain wooden floor. We had no scenery and no changes of costume, except for those who played more than one pan. The entire design budget was £200. The visual impact lay in Shakespeare's poetic imagery and nothing interposed between the actors and the audience of a hundred, who crowded around us on three sides of the acting-area. The effect was properly alarming. One priest queued for a returned ticket again and again, so that he could sit at our feet, discreetly holding out his crucifix to protect us from the evil summoned up in the stifling air of The Other Place. Could we ever re-create that atmosphere for the home-viewer?
Trevor Nunn hoped so, saying: "We will photograph the text." In a small Granada Television studio in London, he re-arranged our stage moves to accommodate the one camera, whose videotape was later edited as if it had been film. The air was filled with smoke from oil-canisters and the smoke was lit to indicate the cold of the Scottish heathland or the richness of a castle's interior. There were many close-ups. The limited vocal projection required of the actors for The Other Place was easily adapted for the camera. We retained the same text we had used onstage, which ran for two hours without an interval. Nearly twenty years later, as the story tautly unfolds on the small screen, there is an intimate horror that is still thrilling. The words are paramount and contradict the assumption that television is primarily a visual medium. Within the confines of a small-screen recording of a stage performance, Nunn's Macbeth has not been surpassed, even by his own video Othello, when I played Iago to Willard White's Moor.
During the day and late into the night after each evening's performance in Washington DC, Minneapolis, Denver and San Francisco, I scribbled long-hand into my foolscap notebook: Richard III - The Film. Whether it would be a film for television or for the cinema, I didn't know. Either way, the principle was probably the same - to choose from the play what was most important in terms of plot and interesting in terms of writing and direct the camera's attention so that nothing was missed: then to imagine what pictures and scenery would enhance it all. If, in the process, the play was opened out beyond the confines of what is practical in the theatre, I was only building on the knowledge I had gathered over months of preparation and playing.
Having the finished production so close to hand was a huge advantage: but I was also helped by recalling the preliminary discussions that Richard Eyre and I had with Bob Crowley, the designer, long before we started rehearsals. The three of us had met at least once a week over a couple of months in Richard's office, reading the play out loud together and dissecting it scene by scene. As so often happens with a classic play, we talked about it in the near-present tense and imagined it taking place yesterday rather than yesteryear. This, I suppose, was what Shakespeare intended. The historical events which he used and adapted for his plays were staged as drama not as a history lesson. That is the riposte to those admirers of the real King Richard who complain that Shakespeare's fiction is a slanderous slight on their hero.