Ian McKellen Writings

10 February 2007 | Ian Richardson CBE (1934-2007)

In 1989, the Royal Shakespeare Company actors were rehearsing Trevor Nunn's production of Othello in a church hall in London when the news reached us that Laurence Olivier had died.  The greatest theatre man of our time was gone.  The curtain had fallen.  It seemed heartless to proceed, particularly with a play that Olivier had triumphed in, so we abandoned rehearsals as Trevor and I went off to record our tributes for BBC.

I remembered this yesterday afternoon, with more bad news at rehearsals, again with Trevor and the RSC.  We were discussing the storm scenes in King Lear.  Jonathan Hyde blurted out his wife had just phoned to say Ian Richardson had died in his sleep, aged 72.  It seemed incredible.  I had seen him so recently onstage, gloriously strutting as Epicure Mammon in the National Theatre's The Alchemist.  Trevor reminisced about his first major production for the RSC, The Revenger's Tragedy, with Richardson starring as Vendice.  This was but one of a string of dramatic villains which culminated, as far as the general public is concerned, on television, with his dastardly Urquart, the Prime Minister in Michael Dobbs' House of Cards.

Over a decade or more, Richardson was a shining star at Stratford for the RSC.  When I played the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974, where he had just shared Richard 11 and Bolingbroke with Richard Pasco on an RSC tour, I was mistaken for him a couple of times.  The next year we were both cast in The Marquis of Keith, again for the RSC.  It is not an easy play and mine a fiendish part.  Richardson as ever was effortlessly in charge of his own, whilst I floundered, even to the extent of forgetting my lines at a number of performances.  At each shameful dry, Ian helped me through by providing a subtle prompt and although he must have disapproved of what can only be called "an error in stagecraft", he never showed it.  He was a company man and a gentleman.

He was brought up in Scotland although drama school training had eradicated his native accent. He was most famous for his voice which could mellifluously flute or bellow, an instrument that any Lear would envy.  Of late he regretted that he wasn't much considered for the great roles he was fitted to play and said something to the effect that "Lear only goes to people like McKellen these days". On and off stage he hid what perhaps he felt to be a failing: his height.  A few inches short of six feet, he always wore lifts hidden within his shoes.  Yet he needn't have worried.  Striding on as Vendice, Richard 111, Angelo, or Richard 11 he seemed as imposing as the tallest of actors.  Within him was the fire and the power.  It exploded in the jealousy of his magnificent Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor just as effectively as in the tragic roles.  If only he had played King Lear.  — Ian McKellen, 10 February 2007

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