"This is a superlative performance from McKellen" — Benedict Nightingale, The Times
"Having spent his youth scaling the peaks of Shakespeare with spectacular bravado in his native England, Mr. McKellen has recently acquired international stardom in not one but two cult series of movies, 'X-Men' and 'The Lord of the Rings.' In those fantasy films Mr. McKellen portrays commanding creatures of metamorphic gifts unknown to ordinary humans. But such powers are slight compared with what he achieves as Lear: a series of metamorphoses that, while drawn in the supernal element of theatrical flame, nonetheless hold up an uncompromising mirror to the future for any ordinary human who has the good (or bad) fortune to live past his prime. Mr. McKellen embodies onstage what the critic Harold Bloom has called 'the terrible intimacy' that 'Lear' inspires in the reading. " -- Ben Brantley, The New York Times
"The boldness of Nunn's approach both protects and enhances the production's crown jewel performance by Ian McKellen, whose generous and profoundly human interpretation of Shakespeare's tragic king ranks right up there with those of the gods of theater, living and dead." -- Marilyn Stasio, Variety
"Sunday newspaper drama critics duly added their approving voices yesterday to the daily paper critics' enthusiastic verdicts last week. Most of them agree that Sir Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare Company productions at Stratford of Shakespeare's King Lear and Chekhov's The Seagull - the former with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role, the latter with him in a brilliant secondary part, are very notable theatrical milestones." — The Guardian
"One of the most lucid, powerful and moving productions of this great tragedy I have ever seen" — Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
"McKellen, intoning 'never' over Cordelia’s corpse like an old, muffled church bell: a hauntingly painful ending to one of his finest performances." — Benedict Nightingale, The Times
"It is for McKellen, and his triumphant progress towards a kind of enlightenment, that I shall really remember the occasion." — Michael Billington, The Guardian
"This is a fine production, beautifully designed and lit, with a commanding central performance by McKellen." — Peter Wood, What's on Stage
"McKellen strikes many and varied notes on a spectrum encompassing childlike petulance (Lear whining for his Fool) to hard-won self-awareness: Lear's belated recognition that he is a ``very foolish, fond old man'' who, in a particularly lovely moment, tests the wetness of Cordelia's tears while wiping them away." — Matt Wolf, Bloomberg
"Masterful McKellen triumphs in tragedy" — Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times
"His portrait of Lear's descent into madness is painfully lit by flashes of hope, doubt and, above all, intelligence. " — David Benedict, Variety
"A crowning glory for McKellen . . . Sir Ian and Frances Barber impress in the RSC's heavyweight double bill" — Susannah Clapp, Sunday Observer
"I have seen eight major productions of Shakespeare's Mount Everest but the very first performance of Sir Trevor Nunn's took me to new heights. McKellen leads us all up the mountain." Theatrical gold -- a theatre-goer's verdict in The Daily Telegraph, 14 April 2007
Q: Your last RSC season was in 1989 in Othello, how do you feel returning to the company after so long?
A: My earliest appreciation of Shakespeare was nurtured by our school’s annual camp at Tiddington on the Avon upstream of Stratford-upon-Avon in the 1950’s, queuing all night for tickets to see the season’s work. Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson were on the menu and I devoured their work, never dreaming I would be allowed to work on the same stage.
By the time I arrived there 20 years later in Trevor Nunn’s company playing Romeo, Macbeth and Leontes, there was an ethos of a theatre company which I relished – and still do. That’s why I am so pleased that our King Lear cast will also present The Seagull, 30 years after I produced the first small-scale tour for the RSC, when we did Twelfth Night with another Anton Chekov play, Three Sisters. So it feels like coming home.
Q: What do you think of The Courtyard Theatre? What do you think the thrust stage does for the relationship with the actor to the audience?
A: So far I have only seen The Courtyard Theatre empty of actors but it is clearly a magnificent space for Shakespeare and it is exciting that its plan will eventually be placed within the structure of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. There is a close proximity with every member of the audience, akin to the much smaller Other Place, where I’ve played Macbeth and Iago.
Q: By playing two productions (and roles) in repertoire – do you think this adds anything special to your experience or the audiences?
A: The RSC has always presented its work in repertoire and as an audience and an actor, I know the thrill of seeing the same company playing in different plays on adjacent nights or best of all on the same day. I am relieved not to have to play Lear more than four times each week and pleased to be sharing Sorin with William Gaunt. I have already played Konstantin and Dr Dorn from The Seagull, just as in King Lear I have played Edgar and Kent.
Q: You will be working with some familiar faces from the past in Stratford – John Barton (RSC Advisory Director) and Cicely Berry (RSC Director of Voice) – how have they influenced your work?
A: The legacy of John Barton and Cicely Berry is safe in the hands of their successors at the RSC but it was a joy to join in one of John’s recent workshops and I’m looking forward to lying down once again in Cis’s room at Stratford, while she re-trains my breathing technique.
Q: Now you are back in the rehearsal room, is it a big culture shock after doing mostly film and television recently? What are the main differences in the disciplines?
A: Since Gandalf (Lord of the Rings Trilogy), Magneto (X-Men Trilogy) and Leigh Teabing (The Da Vinci Code), I have played onstage in Dance of Death in New York, London and Sydney. More recently I was in Mark Ravenhill’s The Cut at the Donmar and on tour, as well as in pantomime at the Old Vic. So I haven’t been out of touch with live audiences.
Q: You will be returning to Newcastle as part of the show’s tour in its 30th anniversary year. How do you feel about that? What is your most abiding memory/highlight of your work up there?
A: I remember in the 1970’s advising Trevor Nunn that the theatre enthusiasts in the north-east deserved to host the RSC away from home. This is the 30th anniversary of our first season there when I played in Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. Whether our company will have the time and energy to present other work when we are in Newcastle, I don’t yet know – but hope so.
Q: From your website (www.mckellen.com) you write in 1976 “if the RSC does not take the most demanding road, who will?” `Do you think that The Complete Works Festival has been a good illustration of this?
A: I have seen only a handful of productions over the last year but envy locals who had the opportunity of seeing them all. I’m hoping Michael Boyd might revive the idea sometime soon. Might it be possible one day for the same actors to work their way through the canon in order so that Shakespeare’s development can be experienced much as his audiences did 400 years ago?
Q: What advice would you give to a young actor starting out in classical theatre roles?
A: One of the greatest joys of being an actor is sharing the stage with older and younger colleagues. When I was starting out, I loved watching and talking with my seniors. Now my role is reversed, it’s touching that the young actors in King Lear and The Seagull are as keen as ever. As for advice – work with people you admire and go and see their work as much as you can.