Ian McKellen E-Posts

16 September 2002

Sticking to the text / Falstaff

From: Robert Hamilton robert.gh@tinyworld.co.uk

Q: Later this year I am playing Falstaff in a specially commissioned play adapted from Henry IV pts 1 and 2, with a bit of Henry V thrown in for good measure. There is a mountain of literature (of suitably Falstaffian proportions) written about the character. When you have tackled roles such as Richard III and Prospero where there are similar amounts of secondary literature, are you tempted to read them, or do you advocate just sticking to the texts?

A: I don't envy you Falstaff, although your version sounds exhilarating — so long as you don't include that tiresome pudding of Merry Wives of Windsor, where the best male part is undoubtedly Master Ford.

I bet academics go to town on Falstaff — Lord of Misrule etc. etc. Well no- one can play the Arden notes and you won't need to either once you concentrate on the man's relationships with his fans, his soldiers and his Prince. There's a telling line from Shallow in Henry 4th part 2 reminiscing about his youth: "Then was Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy and page to Thomas Mowbray Earl of Norfolk". To think the lad Falstaff could be in Richard II as well as the other histories. But the point is he is a survivor and as such represents (oh dear here I am sounding like an academic) the nation. Forget that — he is an old man — easier to act that than any representative!

As for me, I don't read outside the play (by Shakespeare or anyone else) unless I get really stuck and the director ain't directing properly...

Twelfth Night

Q: I had the greatest opportunity so far in my life of being able to play Malvolio in a full run of 'Twelfth Night' (I was the youngest in the cast being only 16 and a girl!) at Winedale and my school. I know you played Sir Toby Belch, how was that role for you, having to literally become the size of the 'world'!

A: My first Shakespeare when I was twelve was playing Malvolio in the garden scene. A great part that I want to play in its entirety one day. I've played Toby Belch twice — a much larger but less rewarding part, the engine of the play's plot with all the best laughs creamed off by Andrew Aguecheek if you aren't careful.

Shakespeare on Screen / Merchant of Venice

Q: Please bring Shakespeare back to the screen now that Gandalf the Grey is behind you for greenlight support. Do you have any plans for making another Shakespearean film?

A: Whilst writing my own adaptation (with Rhidian Davis) I was convinced that Merchant of Venice is due a film version. The eponymous Antonio is a wonderful part. I am not as confident as you that Gandalf's wizardry stretches much beyond the confines of Middle-earth. Hollywood is a world elsewhere.

Titus Andronicus

From: Joel bokken2@aol.com

Q: My students are currently reading Titus Andronicus and have seen a very well done local production of it. Some of our scholarship has suggested that it wasn't written by Shakespeare, or that at most he polished up the verse on an existing work. Is it any more than an Elizabethan slasher flick?

A: It is surprising how often Titus is rediscovered as being a workable, thrilling horror story. I recall Peter Brook's stage production with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh which astounded my generation. More recently the Royal Shakespeare Company did it again at Stratford-upon-Avon with Deborah Warner's small-scale version with Brian Cox as Titus. Then look at Anthony Hopkins in Julie Taymore's very impressive film.

Shakespeare in the USA

From: zenturtle@aol.com Oona

Q: I think it is fair to say, having taught English for a year in the States, that the educational systems are lacking in their teaching of Shakespeare; therefore, it is difficult for a young American, such as Grant Chapman, to whom you responded, to receive the education- without an EXCELLENT teacher, to fully obtain the knowledge of the Shakesperean Language. I have many friends who studied Skakespeare at University in the States, and it was only then that they were able to understand the rudimentary aspects that are taught in the UK. What do you think of Shakespearean studies in the U.S?

A: I am not familiar enough with the United States educational system to comment, although I think you may be over-optimistic about the current standards of teaching in British schools! Shakespeare is no longer, for instance, on the national curriculum.

King Lear

Q: I am currently in a production of King Lear, playing the Duke of Albany and I am having trouble understanding my transition from 'milk-livered man' to actually standing up to and confronting Goneril in a very forceful manner. I have noticed that Shakespeare often gives his actors dramatic reversals in character without much to justify it. What if I witnessed 3.7, where Goneril plots to pluck out Gloucester's eyes. I feel that if I witness how despicable she really is then I can justify my 'you are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face'. At the same time, I think it would be more believable to the audience as well.

A: There are, as you say, many moments when Shakespeare asks the actor to turn on a sixpence. These dramatic reversals are not a problem for the audience as long as the actors believe in them. You might discover that Albany has not been as weak as others assume all along, although his witnessing act 3 scene 7 is plausible. If it were such a good idea, however, I wonder why Shakespeare didn't think of it first?


From: Brad.Reed@libraries.claremont.edu Bradford Reed

Q: MacBeth's transformations seem to happen at least as much between scenes as onstage (e.g., between regretful exit for having killed Duncan and re-entry for the murder's discovery, after hearing the Sisters' additional prophecies but before appearing upon the battlements, etc). What would you suggest to an actor for his offstage-time in this role? What was your experience between-scenes?

A: Shakespeare can elide time somewhat, so that the expectations of naturalistic drama are not relevant. But I would recommend keeping an eye on what must have happened while the character is offstage, whilst realising that it is onstage that almost all the action will take place and that Macbeth's soliloquies (packed with thought and feeling) are a more vital challenge to the actor than his offstage life. The first entrance of Macbeth must match up to the descriptions of his feats as reported to Duncan by the bloody sergeant. I was always grateful not to have to deliver to the audience the physical prowess which makes Macbeth such a hero to his king and nation.


From: Todd Bonny

Q: The recent re-release of the film version of Amadeus got me to thinking. Since there was a tape available of your performance as Macbeth, do you know if there were any made of your stage performance in Amadeus?

A: I expect the Broadway production was recorded on video for inclusion in the Library of Congress's collection or somesuch, where it could be privately viewed. There is certainly no commercially available version.

Classical Training

From: jemurril@samford.edu

Q: Could you explain the difference between a "classically trained" actor and one who is not classically trained. To that end, is to be "classically trained" the same as to be "Shakespearean"?

A: Neatly put. In UK any actor will include Shakespeare in his notion of the classics, pre-eminent amongst or alongside the other great dramatists British and foreign. I am not keen on these terms as they suggest a limitation in an actor's ability or ambition. Familiarity with the classics should not discount an actor when a new play is being cast. Conversely time and again, actors can make a startling debut in Shakespeare without any previous experience of the classics.