1994 | Sir Ian Goes Solo

Introducing A Knight Out
From the programme for the first UK shows (1994)

The first time I saw a ballet, as a child, I was dreadfully disappointed — no-one had warned me that classical dancers don't talk. Until then, my favourite entertainment had been pantomime. In Cinderella and Babes in the Wood, the entire cast had danced and talked — and sang, after a fashion. Christmas shows were such fun, because there was so much going on and there were so many performers in them — animals as well as humans. For the rest of the year, week after week, at the Grand Theatre in Bolton, I was thrilled by variety bills of solo acts — comics, singers, magicians, acrobats — and strippers. But the idea that one person might try alone to hold an audience's attention for 2 hours? — that seemed as odd as a dancer who didn't speak.

Beyond the theatre, in the 50's, I was quite used to one-person entertainment. At our Congregational Church, for instance, I sat quietly through the 20 minute sermon each Sunday and had fun analysing the preacher's rule of three: "first tell them what you're going to tell them; then tell them; then tell them what you've told them". At home we all used to listen to Alastair Cooke's weekly Letter from America, which was just as enjoyable as the full BBC Repertory Company in Saturday Night Theatre. And one unforgettable 1955 morning, in the run-up to the general election, I heard Aneurin Bevan on the stump in Bolton's market square. His rhetoric didn't need a supporting cast.

Since then, some of the most enjoyable theatre I have seen have been solo shows. Roy Dotrice's Brief Lives, Lena Horne's The Lady and her Music, Ken Dodd and Lily Savage time and again. Even so, when the Edinburgh Festival threw down the challenge in 1977 and asked me to devise my own one-man show, I was apprehensive. What on earth could I do? a play a lecture or some stand-up comedy? As I was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time, I decided to plunder my experience of acting in Shakespeare's plays. That became the title of my anthology of famous speeches and reminiscence: and intermittently for over 10 years, I toured the world with Acting Shakespeare.

I did it in regular theatres up and down the country as well as in village halls and institutes and classrooms. I took myself off, thanks to the British Council, to Cyprus, Israel, USSR, Romania, Scandinavia and right across the United States. I played Broadway for a season and eventually the West End. In New York, I recorded the video version, which is still used each day as a teaching aid in American schools and colleges.

Working as you go, is the best way to travel. It's true that you may miss some of the famous sights and sites that holidaymakers crowd in on; but the compensation is that the minute you arrive in a new city you plug into the local energy and quickly understand the undercurrent of daily life there. At the same time, it was surprising how popular Shakespeare's original language is, way beyond the English-speaking world. That's a point I have been making recently, as the funds are raised to film my screenplay of Richard III.

Now that Acting Shakespeare has been retired with other discarded scripts, I have developed this second solo show. As recently I've been exploring the territory of films and television on location in Hollywood, Montana, San Francisco, Sussex, Dorset and Netting Hill Gate, I have worried that I haven't done a play for over three years. Earlier this year, it felt high time to get back onstage. So I was glad to be invited to take part in the New York Cultural Festival celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots — more of that in the show itself.

My starting point was to re-live some of the high spots of my career in plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Shaffer and to explore how my public acting related to my private experiences as a gay man, growing up in a family who never discussed sex or sexuality and, more recently attacking those laws and attitudes which discriminate against me and my kind. As with Shakespeare, gay goings-on have a universal fascination, it seems. In Johannesburg, where A Knight Out had its second airing in September, the audience was as enthusiastic as New Yorkers had been in June.

Now it's your turn to see what you think. I thank you for coming, partly because all the proceeds are to go to Stonewall and local groups with the same agenda of attaining legal and social equality for lesbians and gay men in the UK. But I also thank you for your trust that an actor alone onstage can be at least as entertaining as dancers who don't talk. — Ian McKellen, November 1994

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