Ian McKellen Writings

11 September 1983
    Tyrone Guthrie, A Titan of the Theatre

First published in the Sunday Telegraph Magazine

Our family were churchgoers. Grandpa Sutcliffe was a professional: a gentlemanly non-conformist minister in a quiet corner of the north of England. Grandad McKellen, in the same village, was an amateur: a lay preacher with a charismatic pulpit style — large gestures from the shoulder like an actor. Reading the Nativity story at the primary school carol service was my first attempt at performing in public. But, grown up, I would not be a preacher; I was going to act. Even when I told them I wanted to be a journalist, or a chef, I was planning for the theatre. 

Throughout the middle fifties, with the school camp at Stratford-upon-Avon, I collected all the famous Shakespeare plays and most of the magical Shakespeare actors. Olivier as Macbeth and Malvolio; Gielgud as Lear and Prospero; Peggy Ashcroft's Imogen and Rosalind, and Vanessa Redgrave. Young O'Toole as noble Shylock; Paul Robeson as Othello, blundering and bellowing like a wounded elephant. Afterwards, round the camp-stove, I learnt from the masters and the older boys the game of criticism. Back home in Bolton, in the programmes of the weekly repertory players, I marked their performances out of ten. 

At school I acted non-stop and envied my contemporaries in films, radio plays and pantomimes, who had preceded me into show business. I was allowed backstage at the local Grand Theatre, where variety turns held out against the encroaching counter-attraction of television. There, silent and ignored amidst the dust, I marvelled as the comics and magicians, the chorus girls and the acrobats, disguised their grinding hard work as glamour on stage. Their sweat shone like stardust. I despaired only that I should ever know enough to shine like them. 

At university, everyone was confident. All the undergrad actors were going into the business, dear. I caught their infection chronically. In 21 plays at Cambridge, I served my apprenticeship; still, I felt unprepared for the profession. In character roles, made-up in crepe hair and padding as Toby Belch, all was promising. But as an unadorned juvenile, as Posthumus Leonatus or as Turgenev's Beliayev, my youth was self-conscious, embarrassed and embarrassing. Imitation, mimicry and caricature were insufficient. Prepared to labour as hard as any pro, I did not know how to release and reveal my inner life. My acting was all gestures and no heart. 

Once down from Cambridge, it was up to Coventry as a junior actor in a fortnightly repertory of thrillers, light and heavy comedies, popular old plays and unpopular new ones. The style for much of this was set by the director of my professional debut, who addressed the first rehearsal: "Okay, the play's A Man for All Seasons. In your scripts, you'll find the moves they did in the West End production — what was good enough for Paul Scofield for over a year will do us very nicely for a couple of weeks". 

What it was to be in the Theatre. Learn the lines and do not bump into the furniture. I bumped into a lot of furniture in the next two years but my fellow actors picked up the pieces and were very kind about my arrival from Cambridge. Real pros trained at drama schools. "Ex-varsity chappies, well, you know, love, they always seem to have rehearsed in front of the mirror". Which I stopped doing immediately. Oh, how eager to learn: how happy to be rewarded with some rattling good parts. I was getting better and I was getting on.

In 1963, I turned down a job in London (I still was not good enough). Instead I went to Nottingham. There, the new Playhouse would open with Coriolanus: I in the part of Aufidius; and Tyrone Guthrie, as the play's director. 

To recall his impact on me, 23 years old, there is no need to catalogue his lifetime's achievement. I knew then only a little of his reputation as the brilliant maverick who had run the Old Vic after the Second World War and then brought excitement to the classical theatre wherever he worked in Britain, Israel, Australia, Canada or at his own custom-built playhouse in Minneapolis. He bestrode world theatre like a colossus. And he looked like one, even at our damp, autumn rehearsals. Six-feet-three in his galoshes, muffling up a serious cold, hugging himself in an ankle-length tweed overcoat, then stretching out his long arms as he spoke, radiating energy like a sun: "I'm going to read to you this introduction to an American edition of Coriolanus. I agree with every word of it". This short essay concentrated on Coriolanus's heroism, under-pinned or undermined by a mother-fixation. His archrival Aufidius was a father/friend figure whom Coriolanus worshipped in combat and lusted after in dreams. The play, and our production, turned on this homosexual axis. It was a bold interpretation, albeit secondhand. Next day the book was lying on the stage-manager's table ". . . with an introduction by Tyrone Guthrie". 

Another novelty was the design of late 18th-century plumes, breastplates, breeches and boots. "If you're all in togas, the audience will never know who's who. The play only works if they distinguish civilians from military, friends from foreigners, nobility from the mob". His cast was large and varied - stars, tyros, even amateur actors in the crowd scenes. Anarchy was controlled by a clear, commonsense directive for each scene. For instance, Coriolanus's victorious return from war was celebrated with a municipal reception in Rome; crowds roped off by officials, a red carpet laid, battle trophies paraded — men cheering, women weeping, salutes, handshakes, hugs and kisses. It was a public scene against which the private emotions were glimpsed. We must all be in it. Aufidius had no part in the scene, so "Ian, you'll carry a big banner to hide your face — you won't be recognised and you can help fill the stage with flags". "I can see you, Leo McKern, too much funny business with those ropes . . .". Michael Crawford, in his first Shakespeare, accidentally tripped and Guthrie, perhaps, initiated a subsequent career of comic stunts: "Don't worry; I like the trip, do it again more obviously"! He spied everybody's potential and he encouraged it. 

Aufidius has a number of short solo speeches, difficult to get right while other actors are waiting to rehearse. So he gently suggested I come in each morning before the rest for private tuition. After a couple of weeks: "Right, I think you know you're good enough to show the others how hard you've been working". I would have worked all night if he had asked it. He despised slacking. 

He was a compulsive missionary spreading his gospel that theatre is excitement and entertainment, not "culture", dread word, nor an escape from life; rather its enhancement. In unfashionable corners of the world, he championed theatre people whose hard work, expertise and imagination might serve their community. We were preachers with a message. I would never have expected that.

After the official opening of the Playhouse, we were all to join the civic dignitaries for a reception at the town hall. It might have been staged by Guthrie's sense of humour. By the time we arrived all the food was scoffed and the drink dried up. From within the privileged roped-off Mayoral Parlour, where royalty was still privately feasting, we heard Guthrie berating the Town Clerk who had refused access to the weary, hungry actors. "All evening long, you have been entertained by these people who have worked for weeks, all hours for little pay, presenting your town with their magnificent talents. And your reward is to spurn them. This is not seemly". The colossus flapped out past the drinks table where he removed a tray of gins and tonics and, genuinely indignant, distributed them to us outside. 

The next day he flew on to more excitement in America. He had changed my life, two days before, at the dress rehearsal. Aufidius slaughters his beloved enemy Coriolanus and then ends the play with a speech that many actors (including me) might interpret as mere hypocrisy: 

"My rage is gone, 
And I am stuck with sorrow". 

Guthrie insisted that it was heartfelt and that it be preceded by a wail of keening anguish over the corpse. It was a moment I had muffed at each rehearsal and fooled myself that my gestures would distract from my lack of heart. I was embarrassed. I was acting badly and now at the dress rehearsal was my last chance to get it right. I could still feel nothing. And he said, standing right up against the edge of the stage, privately, but loud enough to be heard - for his message was an unforgettable one: "We are at the climax of a masterpiece. If we haven't convinced the audience by this time that they are in the presence of a great play, they might as well have stayed at home with the television. Aufidius is a man but he can grow, as we all can, to behave like a god. His rage can turn to sorrow. Fill your mind, your imagination with your feelings and let your heart wail. If you can't do it, it's all a waste. You can". 

I think I managed. Those were not his precise words but can you understand that at last I knew why acting is difficult and, yet, a glory? It demands that you dare to cut open your heart and make the audience care that you have done it. Of course, it helped that the play was Shakespeare and that the director was Tyrone Guthrie.


Tyrone Guthrie
 

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