ACTING SHAKESPEARE (London 1987)
From Shakespeare with commentary by Ian McKellen
Playhouse Theatre, London
11 December 1987 - 1 February 1988
Words from Ian McKellen
Returning from the prolonged USA tour of “Acting Shakespeare”, then in its tenth year of sporadic life since the 1977 Edinburgh Festival, I had supper with Edward Harris, an old friend who was doing volunteer work for London Lighthouse, the AIDS centre being created in West London in a converted boys’ school. Government funding was promised but, because of late delivery, construction was grinding down and a standstill was threatened. It took only a few phone calls to organise a run of my show to benefit Lighthouse.
David Kernan (Show People Ltd) was the management. The newly renovated Playhouse in Northumberland Avenue, a little off the West End map, was in need of public attention and offered a greatly reduced rent. The Monument Trust (Simon Sainsbury’s charity) invested a capital outlay of £10,000, so I was able to promise each audience that their entire ticket money would be delivered the following day to pay the Lighthouse’s daily building bills. Construction was uninterrupted and by the end of the 11-week run, the Government grant was enhanced (because the charity had “captured the public’s imagination”) and completion was ensured. Princess Margaret, as patron, opened London Lighthouse whose communal hall on the groundfloor was named “The Ian McKellen Room.” At a later date Princess Diana’s supportive visits to Lighthouse clients were well publicised.
After each performance I waited at the front exit with other volunteers to collect additional money in our buckets. One night an acquaintance Carol Woddis handed me some paperwork concerning “Section 27” (later “Section 28”), the Thatcher Government’s attack on local government funding for gay/lesbian organisations. When I got home I read Carol’s stuff and was as appalled as she. The parliamentary bill was to prohibit any local government authority from “promoting homosexuality” and also banned the presentation of “pretended family relationships” in the classrooms of state-maintained schools. I joined the Arts Lobby (perhaps the most influential of many special-interest groups against Section 28), which publicised the proposed legislation as a weapon of censorship in that, in theory, local theatres might no longer produce plays by gay dramatists nor could local libraries keep books by gay writers on their shelves. This point went home and the media supported it.
The Arts Lobby organised a star-studded presentation on the stage of the Playhouse for an audience of parliamentarians. There and elsewhere I was temporarily adopted as a spokesperson for gay peoples’ anxieties re-Section 28. During the course of a BBC Radio 3 debate with the right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, I came out as a gay man. “Acting Shakespeare” at the Playhouse had thereby led to a total change in my private and public life. Section 28, after some insubstantial ammendments, was passed into law where, at writing, it remains. — Ian McKellen, June 2001
Programme note: “Since leaving the National Theatre, I have spent the year touring all over the USA with my one-man show. Now — for the first time — I’m presenting it in the West End, at the beautiful Playhouse between Trafalgar Square and the river. It is a great show for this time of year. To me, it always feels like a party, with Shakespeare as guest of honour. Dramatic but fun too. I share the stage with Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III; with Bottom, Falstaff, Romeo and Juliet. So come and meet Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Bernard Shaw and, if you like, there is a chance to do a bit of acting with me on stage. Hope to see you over the holidays. Absolutely all proceeds for the entiire run go direct to the building of the London Lighthouse, in support of those living with AIDS and their families.”