Sir Ian McKellen
Sir Trevor Nunn
Sebastian (Trevor Nunn)
They met as undergraduates, both reading English at Cambridge, where they acted together in the Marlowe Society's 1960 production of Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus in the open-air theatre in Bankside Gardens, Stratford-upon-Avon.
They first worked together professionally, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1976, when Nunn as artistic director invited McKellen to be his leading man in a golden season of successes. McKellen played Romeo (to Francesca Annis's Juliet); voted Actor of the Year for his now legendary Macbeth (with Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth) and Leontes in The Winter's Tale, which were all directed by Nunn and played at Stratford-upon-Avon and Newcastle-on-Tyne.
The next Stratford season opened with a three-week revival of Macbeth before two seasons in London at the Donmar and Young Vic. Romeo transferred to the Aldwych, then the RSC's London home alongside another Nunn success, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist with McKellen as Face (Comedy Performer of the Year).
Trevor Nunn outside The Other Place, 1977
Photo by Ian McKellen
Also for the RSC was the premiere of Tom Stoppard's play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour with music composed and conducted by André Previn for one night at the Royal Festival Hall. McKellen played the heroic Alexander. This was also televised.
In 1978, McKellen produced and acted for the RSC's first small-scale tour around the United Kingdom, on John Napier's portable stage. Nunn directed Twelfth Night and Chekov's Three Sisters, with McKellen as Sir Toby Belch and Andrei. The journey to 13 venues was chronicled on television by the South Bank Show.
The Nunn/McKellen partnership was revived in 1989 with Othello, the closing production of the original Other Place in Stratford. McKellen was a ground-breaking Iago, for which he was again Actor of the Year. The production played the Young Vic in London and was televised.
Nunn invited McKellen to be his leading man for his first season as artistic director at the National Theatre in 1997, which opened with his production of Ibsen's Enemy of the People (McKellen as Dr Stockman.) This also played the Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Centre in Los Angeles.
About this time the two friends agreed that they might one day mount King Lear. The first performance of Nunn/McKellen's King Lear was at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford on 24 March 2007.
QUOTESsmall-scale tour of the UK (1978): "Trevor told me it was the most enjoyable job he'd ever done for the RSC. He must have enjoyed the actors because they were the core of the company which later devised Nicholas Nickelby, Trevor's RSC masterpiece, itself the staging inspiration for Les Miserables."
DVD cover featuring Roger Rees and John Woodvine
On Trevor Nunn's first season as artistic director of the National Theatre (1997-8): "I am thrilled to be back in Trevor's rehearsal room, where I expect to learn once more from one of the world's most inspiring directors. His appointment at the RNT is a worthy successor to Richard Eyre."
On King Lear (2007): "Trevor promised to invite me if he were ever asked to direct the play which he'd already done twice for the RSC and I would return the compliment if I were ever asked to play Lear. So when Michael Boyd asked me to do just that, to conclude the RSC's presenting all Shakespeare's plays over 12 months by playing Lear, Trevor honoured his promise." — Ian McKellen, February 2007