25 May 2006

Ian McKellen E-Posts

27 November 2002

The Lyric Theatre, London
Previews begin 20 February 2003
Click here for details


From: Kenneth Cohen

Q: My wife and I were thrilled by your performance in Dance of Death. We almost waited too late but were lucky to be in row 5 for the 2nd to last matinee! I left the theater with 2 questions: In a role such as this, where you must clearly become the person you are playing....how much variation is there from performance to performance in the details of your gestures, facial expressions, etc.? My second question concerns your slide down the staircase railing. This seemed to be an especially risky feat of derring-do! Whose idea was this, how long did it take you to master the "stunt", and did it ever come up short?

A: You are right, performances do vary, and inevitably. The essence of "live theatre" is that it should live and not risk death by trying simply to repeat some ideal set of effects or instructions laid down in the rehearsal room. I have no interest in repetition, preferring re-creation. Not all actors agree with me and take pride in always being the same night by night. As each night the actor is 24 hours older and cannot be the same, this method seems to me perverse.

I took one look at Santo Loquasto's set when Sean Mathias showed me sketches of it and requested that the dominating staircase (so often a feature of Mathias's productions) should be strong enough in case we discovered a moment when the ailing Captain might want to demonstrate his physical prowess. This I eventually did just before the near fatal attack at the climax of his triumphant dance in Act One. It was not easy to maneuver the narrow bannister and I made the mistake of trying to slide down it backwards. Painful even in a jockstrap. David Strathairn (who trained as a clown) showed me how to keep my balance by travelling forward one arm in the air and there were no accidents.


From: John Clifford

Q: In my theater crit course for college, we watched the Olivier film version of Dance of Death. We were all just about shocked by the third act (we think it was the third act...beginning with Judith's entrance). The acts preceding seemed to be a complete play, and neatly resolved at the end of act 2. Act 3 seemed like another play entirely. Was this something you or the rest of the cast and crew ever noticed, or tried to work with in your own version?

A: Olivier's version included Strindberg's sequel unwittily entitled "Dance of Death part 2". Richard Greenberg's translation for Broadway went no further than the original first play which, I agree, concludes very satisfactorily without the appearance of the children and the Captain's death.


Q: I saw "Dance of Death" on the 31st December and am still stunned by the performance. What a wonderful way to close out 2001! To me, the twin themes of the power of denial in the face of decay and complicity in emotional violence seem at least as relevant today as they would have at the turn of the last century. Plus I can't recall a funnier, more extravagant rendering of marital warfare since O'Toole and Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter". Are there plans to publish Richard Greenberg's smart, stylish translation? If so, when will it be available? Does Greenberg ever tackle Part II? And last, but by no means least, thank you for helping me, certainly, and I suspect a great many others, find the courage not to apologize for who we are.

A: Richard Greenberg's translation deserves more productions and an enterprising publisher would have had it ready for sale during the run at the Broadhurst Theatre. Richard came to our closing performance and cast party on January 13th (2002) and was very pleased with the developments that are almost inevitable during an extended season. He hasn't mentioned part 2 but if anyone could make it work, he could. And last, thank you.


Q: I tricked friends into "Dance of Death" to see you and Helen Mirren at a Sunday matinee; and I must say you were fabulous. You were also robbed of a standing ovation, but I think that is because New Yorkers were so busy turning their cell phones back on. So this is a fan giving you that ovation you richly deserve.

A: Broadway audiences do like to show their appreciation at the end by cheering as well as applauding and sometimes by standing but, as you saw, not always. I notice that if one or two people close to the stage stand up (perhaps only to make a speedy exit to recover their coats) enthusiasts behind them will also get up.


Q: For my 27th birthday, I requested to see "Dance of Death". Being in the 3rd row from stage, the surprising direction, the excellent performances and the storyline kept me on my toes! I noticed both yourself and Ms Mirren glancing at the audience from time to time. I was wondering how much does the audience effect your live performances.

A: Helen is one of those slyly perceptive performers who can (at a glance, as you noticed) take in the whole house and then at the intermission provide entertaining details to her colleagues: e.g. "What about that guy in his 20's on the 3rd row!" On the other hand, whatever you imagined, I try only to catch the audience's eye if I am talking directly to them, as when soliloquising in Shakespeare, for example. In "Dance of Death" from the Broadhurst Theatre's proscenium stage, it might have appeared that Edgar was looking at you, when actually he was examining something in his mind's eye.

The joy of acting in the theatre is the audience's contribution, your silence, your coughs, your laughter. More than half our attention is on your response to our work.


From: James Gelber jgelberny@yahoo.com

Q: Was your recent performance in D.O.D. more demanding energetically than some of your earlier work? If so, what, in particular, other than the obvious (e.g., sleep), did you need to do to re-charge yourself during this run?

A: Strindberg cares for his actors as does Shakespeare and gives Edgar time to recuperate in the dressing-room between the exertions of dancing or falling down in a faint. He also (unlike Shakespeare) provides long passages sitting or even lying down in bed which are very welcome. Even so, I was invariably exhausted after two hours onstage, probably because the emotional journey was intense. After each matinee I sometimes ate and always slept.

During the day, as usual when working in the theatre, I was mindful (usually about lunchtime) that an evening performance was in sight. This led me to avoid too much action or even thought. For instance, if I see a movie on the day of a performance, I find it difficult to escape its impact in time for my own acting.


Q: You have said that you keep a souvenir from each play you are in. Did you take anything from "Dance of Death"?

A: Yes — early in Act One, Edgar handed over a butcher's bill to his wife and there was a pile of them in my dressing room, so I took one of them home.


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