13 November 2011: Soldiering On

Fifty years ago, on the brink of jumping from Cambridge University into the acting business, I wondered whether I ought first to apply for a course at a drama school. I had no illusions. I knew I had much to discover about professional acting but wasn't sure that an academy was the best place for me to learn it. I was 22 and fed up with being a student. I wanted to get going in adult life.

After final exams, a dozen of us from Cambridge joined forces, on two productions, with some recent graduates from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. We all soon became friends and I couldn't detect that they were any better actors than us amateurs, nor different in many ways. One of them was the brand-new actor David Warner; another Yolande Bavan; and another was my first grown-up boy friend, the straw-haired beauty Curt Dawson, from Kansas.

In Caesar and Cleopatra Curt played Apollodorus with physical panache, wearing a short white tunic and not much else. I got to show my thighs, in tights, as Warwick in The Lark. Curt's easy presence on stage (as opposed to my own stiltedness) may well have been acquired at RADA but it wasn't shared by all the others.

Another bonus from his training: he knew about stage-make-up, which I didn't, fascinated though I was by grease-paint and theatrical illusion. But there were fight classes at drama school and Curt could fence. In 21 undergraduate plays, I'd had only one stage-fight, a comic one, as Toby Belch versus Margaret Drabble's glorious Viola in Waris Hussein's student production of Twelfth Night.

I decided, much as I needed the training, that a few years in regional repertory could teach me enough fencing, vocal exercising to get by as, say, Hamlet, if ever I played him. So it proved. In 1971, Malcolm Ransom's choreography for the Hamlet/Laertes duel was ingenious, involving a rapier and a heavily padded sleeve to fend off the blade. Stuart Wilson, and his replacement Tim Piggot-Smith, fought with gusto and personality, as required. I could only learn the set moves of the duel by thinking of it as a dance.

In Peter Hall's Coriolanus (and Shakespeare's, of course), Greg Hicks (Aufidius) and I rolled around in a sandy pit, clanging our shields and swords, wearing even less than Apollodorus. Dreas Reyneke gave me my body on his Pilates machines. Greg, like Curt, was just born looking good. Greg trained at Drama Centre in London.

Musings during a long wait today, which has been a respite from a lot of fighting in Middle-earth. In The Hobbit, Gandalf is part old duffer but more he's a soldier. Peter Jackson, who likes to see the old guys fighting it out, reminded me the other day that Gandalf is a commander, a general. Having slain the Great Goblin I was being a bit too indulgent with the dwarves who meanwhile had mislaid Bilbo in the goblin tunnels. I've played enough soldiers to see that PJ was right and in the next take I was very stern.

— Ian McKellen, Wellington, 13 November 2011


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