THE PROMISE (1967)
Written by Aleksei Arbuzov, translated by Ariadne Nicolaeff
Directed by Frank Hauser
Ian McKellen in the role of Leonidik
Fortune Theatre, London
17 January 1967
Words from Ian McKellen
I first saw Judi Dench onstage at the Old Vic Theatre as Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s ground-breaking romantic “Romeo and Juliet." She acted thereafter for prestigious regional theatres with her close friend John Neville (Nottingham Playhouse) and with Frank Hauser’s management at the Oxford Playhouse. Wanting to work with her was my main reason for accepting “The Promise,” a new translation of Alexei Arbuzov’s three-handed play which had been a hit across the iron curtain countries. Ian McShane was then a budding film actor.
In Act One, three orphans band together in Leningrad as their city is under siege from the Nazi forces during World War Two. A love triangle develops. Act Two reunites them as Marat (McShane) returns a war hero and Leonidik has lost an arm fighting. Lika chooses to marry Leonidik. Act Three is a decade later, when Leonidik leaves the other two together. There are few plays with such demanding roles for actors in their 20’s. I particularly enjoyed the ageing with the help of beard and a few lines of make-up.
At Oxford Playhouse the play was an immediate hit. On its first night the cast went for a celebratory Italian meal and found the restaurant packed with London critics who ate and drank with us and promised us rave reviews. These carried us to the little Fortune Theatre in London opposite the stage door of the mighty Drury Lane where Dora Bryan was starring in “Hello Dolly”. Out of my dressing-room window I could flirt with the chorus boys opposite. After her Saturday matinee Dora saw the first two acts of “The Promise” from a private box (in full make-up and half-costume) returning for our third act after her own show had finished. We ran for nine months of packed houses before a second cast took over and both Ians got ready for Broadway. Judi in those days had an antipathy to working in USA and we rehearsed Eileen Atkins into her part. — Ian McKellen, June 2001