THE THREE SISTERS (Cambridge)
Written by Anton Chekov
Directed by John Barton
Ian McKellen in the role of Tuzenbach
Cambridge Arts Theatre
27 July 1959
Words from Ian McKellen
John Barton again, before he left Cambridge for the RSC, was the director of this production mounted during the long summer vacation. I based Baron Tuzenbach on a photo of Michael Redgrave’s performance, which he wrote didn’t convince until he put on some glasses and recognised the character in the mirror. I did something similar.
The simple set suited the small budget and anticipated Peter Brook’s subsequent “Cherry Orchard” which also used screens and carpets to create indoors. Barton’s empty stage by Act Four, left the actors in charge not the scenery, a corrective to Stanislavski’s original over-decorated Chekov at the Moscow Art Theatre.
This was my introduction to the depths underlying the apparent insignificance of Chekov’s dialogue and to the joys of sharing a play with a company rather than a mere cast. I began to feel more confident as an actor surrounded by such talent who treated me as a friend.
Margaret Drabble (later Mrs Clive Swift) gave a star performance but I’ve since realised that Masha is always compelling, even with lesser performers. After graduating, Maggie started as an actor with her husband at Stratford, understudying Vanessa Redgrave’s Rosalind. In the dressing-room she began her first novel “The Garrick Year”, in which some readers have identified her RSC colleagues in the fiction. — Ian McKellen, December 2006