Ian McKellen: My Australian Debut

I've been a long time getting to Australia! Whilst I've travelled and worked in any number of countries away from home from South Africa to Japan, throughout Europe and the United States, Australia has always beckoned and there have been a number of invitations over the years, mainly to bring one of my solo shows, that I couldn't accept. When I decided to play Gandalf and spend a year in New Zealand's version of Middle-earth, I thought it would be a good chance to visit Australia, not realising that would involve a three hour flight. As it turned out, I slipped over just once for the climactic weekend of Mardi Gras in 2000 and was rewarded with a snivelling cold and steady rain in Sydney. Even so, staying with friends in Balmain and sailing in the world's most beautiful harbour were enough to decide that I wanted to return soon and not just with a fit-up one-person show but with a full-scale theatre production worthy of Sydney's theatre scene.

Such visits from abroad are expensive, shifting scenery and actors from UK but when Sydney Arts Festival saw our production of Dance of Death in London in 2003 and wanted it as a centre-piece for January 2004, I was very excited. So, fortunately, were Frances de la Tour and Owen Teale, the other two members of the love triangle that dominates Strindberg's masterly analysis of a marriage gone wrong. Sean Mathias's production, with Richard Greenberg's brilliantly witty new translation, was originally devised for Broadway. We opened in the wake of September 11th 2001 and confounded all pessimism by surviving and thriving in New York's darkest hour. We ran for four months at the Broadhurst Theatre, where I had played in Amadeus two decades previously - a lucky address for me.

It's not often I feel there is more to mine in a play after such an extended run but Sean and I wanted the folks back home to see our work and the addition of Frances de la Tour's Alice (which she had previously played to Alan Bates's Edgar) gave the revised production an added challenge. Robert Jones's spectacular set presented the action afresh and Owen Teale played the visitor whose arrival kicks off the play. The London critics and audiences were enthusiastic - I don't know how many of them expected to find me still sporting a wizard's long hair and beard, but I enjoyed being back onstage in a new disguise, after a long spell away filming The Lord of the Rings and X-Men movies.

Now here we are again - a wonderful way to make an Australian debut. Off stage I shall enjoy catching up with Hugo Weaving (if he isn't shooting yet another blockbuster elsewhere): Richard Cottrell, the friend who suggested I try professional acting after Cambridge University moons ago, who now lives and works in Sydney: Alan Cumming who is also visiting Sydney, so Nightcrawler and Magneto can meet up again. I'll be hoping to bump into Cate Blanchett, with whom I share the screen at the end of LOTR: Return of the King but whom I have met only once at a party in Wellington and Baz Luhrmann who told me at the Oscars two years back that he had enjoyed my Richard III on film as much as I had his Romeo and Juliet.

I arrive after a brief Christmas in Los Angeles in time for a week's rehearsal and New Year's Eve watching the fireworks. Frances, Owen and I are joined by support from local actors and understudies. Otherwise this is the show "direct from the West End" as promoters like to boast. Our previews start 6 January 2004 at the Theatre Royal. Tickets are selling fast. Don't miss Dance of Death - I may not be back for another 64 years! — Ian McKellen, November 2003

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