Words by Ian McKellen
I had never had an ambition to play Prospero in Shakespeare’s last play and our rehearsals and performances confirmed how difficult it is to bring off. The language is dense and it is not always easy to make comprehensible, particularly during the long expository speeches to Miranda in Act One. Caliban was Timothy Walker who, disconcertingly for me as I struggled, had been acclaimed for his young Prospero in the Cheek by Jowl production a few years previously.
Jude Kelly daringly created the watery setting with Robert Innes Hopkins as we went along and she was expecting the Courtyard Company to feed off a collective strength. But I was exhausted by the rigours of the previous two productions and not at all on form. None of us was. I could never seem to take advantage of the freedom that I had advocated for The Seagull. I might have managed better had I been fresh and supported by a director’s prearranged plan. Yet the play’s magic asserted itself in performance, confirming the general experience that The Tempest is a play that satisfies audiences rather than actors. After an early show, when I was feeling down and guilty that I wasn’t at my best, I met two women in the theatre lobby. One of them had clearly been crying. Clutching me, with one arm round her younger companion, she half-sobbed: “I didn’t expect to see a play all about....”(presumably referring to some dark personal experience) “...about... rec-on-cili-ation...” So that was alright. — Ian McKellen, June 2001