As he returns to the London stage opposite Patrick Stewart in Waiting For Godot, Ian McKellen talks to Matthew Amer about a production that could be the most eagerly awaited of 2009.
Some say that you should never meet your heroes, that they can never live up to the superhuman characteristics you have granted them through years of watching and admiring them from afar. Those wise philosophers are right, of course, the reality can’t ever match the imagined ideal, but that will never stop you from trying to meet them.
When I was given the opportunity to interview Sir Ian McKellen, these thoughts immediately flashed through my mind. One of Britain’s greatest actors, a man whose stage experience is almost unmatched, the man who so brilliantly embodied Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings film trilogy; in my mind he was untouchable, among the very highest echelons of theatre professionals I could ever hope to interview.
In person, of course, he is just that, a person. He is none of the characters we have seen him play over the years; though he does occasionally pull a Gandalfian thinking face – a twitch of the nose and a half smile – he is just a man. To be brutally honest, he is an aging man, the perfect age, in fact, to star in Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
It is hard to believe that it is McKellen’s debut Beckett play considering his wealth of stage experience, yet on the brink of his 70th birthday he is trying something new. He is delighted, in fact, that he is the correct age to take on the role of Estragon opposite another actor of similar years and experience, Patrick Stewart, as Vladimir. “They’ve known each other for 50 years,” he explains. “It’s quite clear in the script. In the first production in London, the man who played my part, Peter Woodthorpe, was 24. That must have been very confusing to the audience, to have a 24-year-old character refer to the old days.”
This, it would be fair to say, is not the only facet of the play that has confused theatregoers in the capital since it premiered in London in 1955. The tale of two old friends passing the time as they wait for the mysterious Godot has often split opinion between those who consider it a masterpiece of modern theatre and those who don’t understand the point of the play in which nothing happens, twice.
“I’ve never done anything like it”
For McKellen, working on the piece has been “a revelation”. He describes it as “more a slice of life than a plotted play”.
“It’s very cunningly written,” he continues. “The characters arrive just when you need them. He has laughs exactly where they’re needed. He has pauses where they’re needed. Each act is just the right length; the first act is about ten minutes longer than the second, which is ideal.”
I carry around a proverbial pinch of salt in my metaphorical pocket to take when actors sing the praises of whichever production they happen to be in, but when a performer of the stature and experience of McKellen explains exactly why a play works, I don’t feel the need to reach for the imaginary condiments.
The reverence I show does not just come with reputation, but also due to the gravitas with which McKellen delivers his thoughts. Throughout our short chat, he takes his time, considering exactly what he will or won’t say, how much of himself he will divulge. When he speaks, slowly, I take notice.
This is why I am so surprised when he says of the tour that has taken Godot round the country before bringing it to London that “I’ve never done anything like it.” Really, in a career spanning five decades, can any production be so unique? When you look more closely the answer is, of course, yes.
The combination of McKellen and Stewart, ably supported by Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, was and is a mouth-watering proposition, teasing theatre fans up and down the country and ensuring that every ticket for the tour was sold, “including some rather big theatres”.
“I think theatre’s a young person’s game”
While audiences and critics salivated at the thought of that revered quartet sharing a stage, McKellen saw it quite differently: “What I see is Patrick Stewart, my old mate, and Ronny Pickup who I’ve known since the 1950s when we were both students. I don’t think ‘Ronny Pickup, the guy who acted with Judi Dench on Broadway in Amy’s View’, or ‘Simon Callow who’s just come back from a hugely successful tour in Equus’, or ‘Jean-Luc Picard’. They are all those things, but it’s rather odd really because I feel a bit detached from other people’s reactions.”
McKellen lights up when he talks about touring, and not just with this company. There is a passion in him for performing around the country rather than focusing on the West End or Stratford. It is a passion that borders on a sense of responsibility which originates from his introduction to theatre growing up in Wigan. “When I was a kid,” he explains, “I used to depend on tours. I couldn’t have got to London from Lancashire. Gielgud came and did King Lear eight miles from my house. Why shouldn’t I be the same? A lot of people have seen this show up and down the country who would never have dreamt of coming down to London specifically to see it.” The downside, of course, is the travel, the upheaval and not being able to eat properly, which all takes its toll.
Just last year, McKellen trod in the footsteps of Gielgud, touring as the aging King moved to split his kingdom three ways. This tour, however, took him around the world, stopping off in Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and America. Many of the headlines surrounding the show focused on the delayed press night caused by Frances Barber – who played Goneril – rupturing knee ligaments in a road accident. It was less well documented that McKellen nursed his colleague while she recovered. While Barber, when we met to discuss Madame De Sade, happily regaled me with tales of parties, road trips and evenings spent in The Lord Of The Rings’ set, McKellen is less forthcoming with stories of offstage experiences. He smiles a partially cross, partially amused smile, quietly scolding that Barber “is very indiscrete” and summarises that “we had some very jolly times; when you go on an international tour, lively people want to see what’s going on outside the production”.
The tour wasn’t all joy and laughter. He says, like so many before him, that even after a year of playing Lear, “I hadn’t cracked it”. He complains that many of the auditoriums to which the Royal Shakespeare Company toured were inappropriate for the show, too huge for the production that originated at the Courtyard theatre where the audience sat on three sides of the stage, connected with the action. It clearly troubles him that these worldwide audiences did not receive the show that he would have liked to give them. Maybe he feels that they, who so rarely get the chance to see the RSC, deserved better, and that the theatres stopped the entire company from giving it to them. Most tellingly, though, his recollections lead him to mention, that “I think theatre’s a young person’s game, really.”
“It’s a lot more exciting to see those films than to make them”
At the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where he is performing in Waiting For Godot, there are around 60 steps separating his dressing room, which he shares with Stewart, from the auditorium. It is a trek to climb or descend them. “I don’t want to be tired when I get onto stage,” he murmurs, before deciding that “it’s alright”.
I wonder if it really is. We, as audience members, tend not to really see the age of performers; that, I suppose, is one of the tricks of acting. We recognise age in characters, but not in the actors. To us – to me – Ian McKellen is the great master of the stage; in his recent films he has played the all-powerful wizard Gandalf and the super criminal Magneto. These are not frail men who suffer with age, but sages who embrace their life’s experience. Even as Lear, we recognised the performance as an age-addled monarch, not the age of the actor portraying him.
There is the merest hint that McKellen’s thoughts might occasionally stray towards leaving live performance behind, that if he felt he wasn’t able to give an audience that highest calibre of performance he might stop altogether rather than cheat them. With The Lord Of The Rings and X-Men film franchises – “horrible word” – behind him, his Hollywood stock is high enough that he could concentrate on films. In fact, 2010 will see him return to New Zealand for a year to reprise the role of Gandalf in the two-part big screen adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings precursor The Hobbit. While he is less enthusiastic about returning to the X-Men movies – “It’s a lot more exciting to see those films than to make them” – he is not closing any doors.
But amid the reticence and the struggle with an aging body, it is hard to forget his excitement when talking about this production and this tour, his sense of responsibility and, possibly most of all, his love of being part of a company: “Acting is not a solo activity. Even if you’re doing a one man show you’ve got people off stage, you’re not totally independent. To work with friends is just fantastic, which is why I think actors, on the whole, are rather friendly people and try and immediately make friends with someone they’re working with. They want to be close because they have to be very open with each other and reveal things to each other that in normal life you keep to yourself.”
I am not part of the company; I am a member of the press that McKellen has said can be “a bit intrusive”, so he has revealed to me only that which he has wanted to. As I approached the Theatre Royal Haymarket I was expecting to meet a legend; I left having interviewed a man, a performer, slightly guarded in what he let slip, happy to talk yet thoughtful about his responses, in love with a profession that is taking its toll on a body that is not as young as it once was. Was I disappointed? No. He is Sir Ian McKellen, as long as he keeps producing the performances that created my imagined image of him I’ll be happy. And I suspect that he will.