Ian McKellen E-Posts

12 April 2001

Romeo and Juliet

From: Daniel Wakefield: nickwood39@hotmail.com

Q: I have been given the part of Romeo in our next college production. We have been making a list of words to try and describe him, and apart from 'young' for every word you use, there is always an opposite. He's aggressive, but sensitive, he's very intelligent, but can be very stupid, he's a clear thinker, and amazingly impulsive, and so on. When you played him did you find that he had any qualities that were stronger than others?

A. You seem to have a firm handle on Romeo's character. I expect it will be useful being close to his age. Most professional actors playing him are much older than Romeo. I remember at 37 trying far too hard to look, run, leap, climb and dance like a teenager. It's always safer to feel and think like the character rather than impose his characteristics on your own.


Q: I've been a fan of yours since I saw you play Henry V, Luther etc at Ipswich repertory theatre, and was especially struck by your Iago at Stratford. Did you find Ernest Jones' theory — that Iago is subconsciously in love with Othello but hates the very idea of loving anyone — at all useful?

A: I have only read the outline of Jones' ideas in discussions about Laurence Olivier's Iago at the Old Vic Theatre in London (1938). The director Tyrone Guthrie persuaded Olivier to keep his passion for Othello a secret from Ralph Richardson who was playing the Moor. When Olivier bent over and kissed Othello during the epileptic fit in act 3, Richardson suddenly woke up at the rehearsal with "I say, steady on old cock!" I might riposte the same to Ernest Jones. After all Iago, who speaks the truth about his motives to the audience, is quite clearly a victim of the straight sexual jealousy which he then visits onto his chief. He suspects Othello has slept with Emilia, Mrs Iago.

Iago admires Othello's soldierly prowess but I wouldn't put it a more intimate feeling than that.

Richard III

From Ben Spiers: ben_spiers@hotmail.com

Q: I am planning to direct Richard III with a female Richard. What pitfalls could you alert me to? Is it even worth playing Richard as a woman, or would you say that it is better to play him as a man? Any advice on how to handle the Lady Anne scene?

A. As I write, the British comedian Dawn French has turned Bully Bottom female in Mathew Francis's West End production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. All seems to have gone well. I presume your Richard, however, will be played as a man, like Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet and Fiona Shaw's more recent King Richard II at the National Theatre. If so you will have no problems with the wooing of Lady Anne. If not, at least the lesbians in the audience will have a ball. The late Kenneth Tynan, critic and dramaturge at the National Theatre in the 1960's, once reported on an all-girls' school mounting of King Lear, with the headmistress in the eponymous role. Her Queen Lear was gamely supported by the Duchesses of Kent and Gloucester and made only minor adjustments to the text e.g. "I am a very, foolish, fond old woman."

King Lear

From: David Margosian belimp@execpc.com

Q: What was the most difficult Shakespearean production you participated in and why?

A. Probably Deborah Warner's King Lear which was cross-cast with Richard III for the National Theatre's production that played at the Lyttelton Theatre and toured Europe and Japan. She had planned on a long portable wooden screen that the actors would carry on and off to serve as a table, a wall, a hill etc. The day it was dragged into Rehearsal Room One it proved too heavy to be manageable even by a score of Lear's knights and was wisely scrapped. So, at a stroke, ours became a production without major props or scenery. Brian Cox as the king was however allowed a wheelchair and I as Kent got to sit down in the stocks. Otherwise it was a long evening of standing around on an empty stage.

Out of difficulties can come success and Cox's Lear was properly energised and very moving and much-praised wherever the production toured.

King Lear

From: Andrew Duxburye asduxbury@hotmail.com

Q: Besides my long and avid interest in theater and performance, I am a professional geriatrician with a great deal of expertise in the health and social problems of aging. I have always found King Lear to be a particularly fascinating work as it is one of the few great works of art that deals honestly with age, dementia and the impact of those problems on family structure. Is Lear a play and a part which you have any affinity for and are you aware of other literary works that take on similar themes?

A. Shakespeare is reliable on all seven ages including "second childishness and mere oblivion" — think of ancient Adam in the early scenes of As You Like It who receives kinder treatment than Lear.

"Mad" Queen Margaret in Richard III is another victim of old age, tolerated but despised by her erstwhile enemies. The Gloucestershire scenes in Henry IV part 2 present three sprightly and entertaining old men — Falstaff, Shallow and Silence. There must be more examples through the 38 plays.

Lear hasn't yet attracted me: but that's more to do with the problem of an entire cast of brilliant actors who are needed if the play is to work in its entirety.

King Lear

From: JonathanGriffiths@breathemail.net

Q: I am 17 and applying for drama schools. Are there any audition speeches you may recommend? I was thinking about Edmund in "King Lear" (bastard speech) for the classical piece - do you have any tips on how I should portray him? I understand that you didn't go to drama school.

A: As you realise I'm not an expert on these academies. As for Edmund's speech, too many people audition with it and it bores the examiners. When you next need a Shakespeare go for something less familiar, preferably from a play you know well. Choose a soliloquy, so you can look your testing audience straight in the eye. And good luck.

Playing and Acting Shakespeare

From: Jon Moskowitz atticusny@prodigy.net

Q: About ten years ago, PBS here in New York broadcast a series called "Playing Shakespeare," led by John Barton, in which you participated. I was wondering if this series is still available, as it was one of the best (and most entertaining) explanations of Shakespearian writing and acting I've ever seen. Also, around the same time I remember seeing a broadcast of "Acting Shakespeare," which was you alone. Is that available in the States? And did it have any connection to the John Barton series?

A: I think if I hadn't pinched the title Acting Shakespeare for my solo stage show, John Barton might have used it for his subsequent television series (which was also published as a book). You may find an enterprising library which recorded and retains the PBS broadcast of both shows.

Richard II

Q: Many years ago (sorry!!) at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford Sir Ian played Richard II. Just as he got to a very poignant bit .... I giggled. I was only about 14 at the time, and he turned round looked at me (to my absolute horror) but then he laughed and said 'This is supposed to very serious!' He turned back and carried on. I have never forgotten him for this!! .

A: I wish I could return the compliment and say I have never forgotten it either! But it was 32 years ago and I long since forgave you.