Early 1984, Adrian Noble invited me to discuss joining him at the Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps to play Coriolanus in his production. My boyfriend said he didn’t fancy living in or travelling regularly to Stratford-upon-Avon. So when Peter Hall showed interest in my working for him at the National Theatre, only half an hour by car from home, this seemed preferable and I agreed to do three plays over a year or so. One of these turned out to be “Coriolanus” so I apologised to the RSC and after Venice Preserv’d and Wild Honey were on, renewed my partnership with Peter Hall which had started with his Broadway production of Amadeus (1980-81).
I had played Tullus Aufidius in an idiosyncratic version by Tyrone Guthrie in 1963/64, but after 20 years I arrived with few preconceptions about the play. Hall collected around me a very strong cast led by Irene Worth, the doyenne of classical acting, as my mother. John Bury devised a wonderfully practical and evocative setting for this most public of plays, which discusses the nature of society with all branches from top to bottom represented as they tussle over the affections of the people. Hall, who once had ambitions to becoming a professional politician, was determined not to take sides, leaving the audience to argue out the pros and cons for themselves. He said this was not a socialist or Brechtian tract nor where there any heroes in the play. But when we were shewn the costume sketches, a mixture of classic and modern styles, I noticed that John Bury’s designs for the “people” were labelled “The Mob”, betraying his sympathies.
Hall placed about 30 members of the audience on the stage. They were expected, under the direction of the cast, to respond to the action. This they either totally failed to do – blocking my first entrance, for example, too nervous to interfere by shifting their ground so the arrogant Caius Martius had to walk ignominiously round them – or they jolined in too enthusiastically, waving or chatting amongst themselves at inappropriate moments. After 30 performances I was fed up with all this and, having established Irene and the rest of the cast agreed, I wrote a memo to Peter asking for his permission to try a couple of performances with the audience where they belonged, i.e. not on the stage with the actors. Peter refused, accusing me of “rather undermining everything I think about the production”. Mmmmmm. I retorted “After every performance I talk to friends who have seen the show and with one, I promise you only one, exception they are unanimous that the on-stage audience is a distraction and a comic distraction at that. You can imagine how disheartening it is when friends want to talk about the odd characters they have spent the evening looking at, instead of talking about the production.” No response to that plea. A few shows later as I was about to start the soliloquy in the enemy camp a woman returning from the bar asked me to sign her programme.
This disagreement was not typical of my relationship with Peter, which was otherwise trusting and cordial during and after the rehearsal period. I happily agreed that Coriolanus doesn’t break the audience’s heart, although the nature of life and politics might. C. is a loner, a star: a great warrior, not a great leader. Another Shakespeare soldier who fails in civilian life. Working with Irene was exhilarating. We enjoyed improvising moves and delivery of the text during our two major scenes – she called it jazzing. Greg Hicks, with whom I worked at RSC, was an imaginative stage fighter who introduced me to yoga and happily fell in with my homoerotic gloss of the relationship between Tullus and Caius, a remnant from Tyrone Guthrie.
In September 1985, after 102 performances on the South Bank, we did two open-air performances below the Acropolis at the Herodus Atticus Theatre in Athens. I was exhausted by the part, although not with it. Playing Shakespeare to 6000 in the open air, with inadequate amplification and chasing up and down ancient steep and deep stairs between the throng, with banner and sword aloft, is a young man’s game. During the final show I drank five litres of water and a jar of Greek honey that I filched from Greg Hicks. Even so, after it was over I leant against the backstage wall unable to move and I was half-carried back to the dressing-room and an ouzo. That is the day I first felt mortality as an actor – not that I gave into it. Two days later I was home rehearsing for another RNT show, The Cherry Orchard. — Ian McKellen, May 2003