Ian McKellen
and The National Theatre

Sir Ian McKellen's 1997 return to the Royal National Theatre on the South Bank in London, coincided with Trevor Nunn's arrival as Artistic Director. Nunn's opening production of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" (Olivier Theatre: September 18 1997) was translated by Christopher Hampton, designed by John Napier and starred Sir Ian as Dr. Tomas Stockmann. John Caird's production of J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" followed in December 1997, also at the Olivier, with Sir Ian doubling as Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. Both plays were in the RNT's repertoire until the spring of 1998, and "An Enemy of the People" later opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

In 1965, Ian McKellen joined Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company at the Old Vic, on the same day as Michael York and Ronald Pickup, to rehearse Franco Zefferelli's version of "Much Ado About Nothing" (with textual emendations by Robert Graves.) He had been recommended by Maggie Smith after she saw his West End debut in James Saunders' "A Scent of Flowers". She was Beatrice to Robert Stephens' Benedick: Albert Finney was Don Pedro, Derek Jacobi was Don John. McKellen was a blonde-bewigged Claudio and Michael York as a naturally striking coffee-server. The production was recorded on audio-tape. 

During the NT's 1995 summer sojourn at Chichester Festival Theatre, McKellen had only one scene but a vintage piece of comic business (falling asleep upright whilst leaning on an unstable chair) in Desmond Donovan's production of Arthur Wing Pinero's backstage romance "Trelawney of the 'Wells'" (Captain de Foenix). 

Having directed McKellen as Salieri in the Broadway revival of the NT's production of "Amadeus", Sir Peter Hall invited him to join the Company itself, now occupying the South Bank complex in London. He opened as Pierre in Thomas Otway's "Venice Preserv'd" (director Peter Gill); was the Evening Standard's Actor of the Year for "Coriolanus" (director Peter Hall, with Irene Worth as Volumnia). He won the Olivier Actor of the Year Award for his Platonov in Michael Frayn's comic version of Chekov's first play "Wild Honey" (director Christopher Morahan). These productions feature in the South Bank Show's "Ian McKellen's Diary of a Year" (London Weekend & Bravo USA). Responsibility for planning at the National was next divided into Groups. With Edward Petherbridge, McKellen presented a group who brilliantly acted in three shows in each of the NT's auditoria. Parts large and small were shared and each of the 15 actors understudied. For the McKellen/Petherbridge group, in the Lytellton he played Bosola in "The Duchess of Malfi" (NT debut for director/designer Philip Prowse). In the Olivier, he played Hound and Mr Puff in a double-bill of Tom Stoppard's production of his own "Real Inspector Hound" and in Sheridan's "The Critic" (Sheila Hancock directed - the first woman to do so at the NT). In the Cottesloe Mike Alfred directed Chekov's "The Cherry Orchard", with Hancock as Ranevskaya, Petherbridge as Gaev and McKellen as Lopahkin. The McKellen/Petherbridge Group played the first Chicago International Theatre Festival and Theatre L'Europe in Paris.

In 1986, on the eve of a Broadway revival of "Wild Honey" (also at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles), he gave two charity performances in aid of the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National Studio in the Olivier (seating 1100). This was part of the world tour of "Acting Shakespeare", a solo show of chat and performance of Shakespeare soliloquies and dialogues. 

He was back in fine voice at the NT two years later - "very happily with Richard Eyre as director and friend. What a huge boost he has given the National - I loved seeing close-up the inspiration and toil with which he organised us all into the most successful repertory theatre in the world". Typically, Eyre welcomed to the NT a one-off charity performance of Martin Sherman's "Bent" and presented it as a hit on the South Bank and in the West End. Sean Mathias directed McKellen in his original role of "Max". 

McKellen then produced "King Lear" (Kent under Deborah Warner's direction, with Brian Cox as Lear). This cross-cast with McKellen's "Richard III", directed '30s style by Richard Eyre and designed by Bob Crowley - the origin of the UA/MGM movie (cf. Screenplay published by Doubleday). The Shakespeare Kings Lear and Richard toured the world to acclaim. McKellen was created Knight of the British Empire (New Year's Honours 1991), won the Olivier Award as Actor of the Year(1991) and crossed the USA as "Richard III"(1991). Before that the Eyre/McKellen partnership had continued with Eduardo de Fillipo's "Napoli Milionaria". Again directed by his greatest friend Sean Mathias ("we lived very beneficially together for 9 contented years"), he played his favourite National auditorium, the Cottesloe, as Chekov's "Uncle Vanya" (adapted by Pam Gems and also starring Janet McTeer and Antony Sher). 

As well as his fifteen plays (over 32 years) at the NT, Sir Ian has taken part in Platform Performances, Celebriteas "and other public humiliations". He was for two years patron of the Lloyd's Theatre Challenge. He steered the video-taping of "Richard III", the first in the British Theatre Museum's successful experiment in preserving elements of very good stage productions. At the National Studio, he has held workshop sessions with undergraduates during his Professorship year at Oxford. He was part of the Studio's supportive visit to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, acting and talking about acting with South African professionals. 

Sir Ian has served on the NT's Development Council which encourages private sponsorship and has been asked to join the NT's Board, where he would hope to encourage also further public investment. 

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On the Royal National Theatre:

"I can't quite accept the anomaly of a theatre that is both national and royal." 


On the NT production of "Much Ado About Nothing" (1965):

"My starry colleagues made every night nerve-wracking and I hated the doll-like make-up which Franco personally applied at the dress-rehearsal, whilst sitting on my knee."


On the correct spelling of his name:

"I was also in John Arden's 'Armstrong's Last Goodnight' for which I was fortunately disguised by beard and impenetrable Lallands accent. My name was missed off the souvenir programme by the publicist Virginia Fairweather. She excused her error by saying that my name was difficult to remember and to spell. I thought: 'What! like Gielgud - or Fairweather?' "


On Olivier:

"There was great competition for parts from an army of talented juvenile actors in Olivier's NT Company and after Chichester I left for emptier pastures. Sir Laurence wrote to my agent that he was 'haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity.' I shall always regret that I never acted with him."

1984 —  Ian McKellen appears as Pierre in the NT production of "Venice Preserv'd"

On the NT support of The Market Theatre in Johannesburg,South Africa:

"Of all my visits abroad with the National, this was the most affecting. The Market Theatre's foreign tours had speeded apartheid's demise. To be in the new Republic at its outset was joyous - everyone newly alert for his neighbour's well-being. It was the first time that I felt patriotism was an important part of politics."


On "Acting Shakespeare":

"During the second performance, my voice gave out just as I was doing a bit of Juliet. I think I'd overdone Falstaff earlier on. Being a one-man show, all that could be done was a few voice exercises on my back, which I'd picked up from Cicely Berry at the RSC and Patsy Rodenburg at the NT. Sir John Mills very sweetly left his seat on the aisle, to give me a dusty throat-lozenge, rescued from his wife's handbag. After the interval, I shamefully had to restore audibility, with the aid of a body microphone." 

Click to enlarge1990 —  Ian McKellen appears as Max in a benefit NT production of Martin Sherman's "Bent"