School Days

Ian McKellen as Henry V at Bolton SchoolBack in the main school there was an annual classic play. My first part was Margaret, in Robert Greene's extravaganza FRIAR BACON AND FRIAR BUNGAY. The following year, we did OTHELLO but I was 15 and too old for Desdemona or Emilia - I'm still waiting to play a Shakespeare heroine. The Great Hall's acoustics were abominable, its echo bouncing off the pannelling and mullions, then fighting the creaks from a thousand rush-bottomed chairs, before it faded away somewhere among the hammer-beamed roof. The senior English master took rehearsals twice a week after school through the Spring Term. When I played Henry V (1957), he gave me a solo lesson in audibility. 'Just talk as loud as you can; don't shout and we'll see if I can hear you clearly.' Off I charged into 'Once more unto the breach...' and off he strolled, with his back to me, up the centre aisle, nodding approval but occasionally halting - 'Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit...' - and he sloped off further, as I flung the consonants at his retreating M.A. gown. When he reached the back - 'And you good yeoman...' - he quietly pushed open the glazed double-doors, which closed behind him. I could see him out beyond them, still listening - 'Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George' I belted - he turned round, smiling, and hurried back in to me: 'Heard every word; no good if they can't hear the words'.  

Ian McKellen as Justice Shallow at CambridgeAuditioning for the Amateur Dramatic Club at Cambridge (1958), you had to do two speeches - one Shakespeare, one modern. I chose Aaron from TITUS ANDRONICUS, having been impressed by Anthony Quayle's performance in the Brooke/Olivier version. The mainly undergraduate selection committee for the ADC couldn't possibly have been impressed by my effort, although I saved my face as old Billy Rice, in my modern speech, from THE ENTERTAINER. John Barton, then a junior don, remembered it six months on, when he cast me as the ancient Justice Shallow, in his student production of both parts of HENRY IV (1959). Derek Jacobi was Prince Hal, Clive Swift was Falstaff and the current Head of BBC Radio Drama was a very larky prelate. Barton pressed me hard in rehearsal, more and more painfully, as he made me, over and over again, lead Falstaff onto the stage with 'Nay, you shall see my orchard...' He told me to speak, full of the warmth of a summer's evening, full of the wine from supper, full of age and nostalgia. He drove me mad and incompetent, as he spoke the lines himself, brilliantly. Eventually I gave up my independence and resorted to mimicking Barton, his stoop, his wheezes, his pendulous jaw and twinkling eyes. When a couple of newspaper critics gave me credit for a performance which, in truth, belonged to the director, my friends congratulated me and assumed I would now decide to join them in the professional theatre.


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