- July 16, 2019
It’s some years since I last saw Ian McKellen’s A Knight At The Theatre, a wonderful one man journey through the life of an actor, a show that at the time I thought he would never repeat or surpass. But last night at the Theatre Royal Brighton he did, or at least in part. By this I mean that this was by no means a repetition of that earlier show, this was an extraordinary new piece of work and what that seemed far more personal and far more touching.
At 80 McKellen has embarked on an extensive tour of British regional theatres which will be followed by a West End residency. His intention is to use monies raised to help support those theatres and the first half you lean why. He is passionate about the theatre, the theatres and live theatre above all. The evening starts unsurprisingly with Lord Of The Rings and he reads, well he doesn’t actually read, it’s all in his memory, but he performs the passage from the book where Gandalf falls to what we assume is his demise – “ You shall not pass” he cries. It’s not the script from the film but the passage from the pages of the book. It’s impressive to say the least. But like the very best stand up he then counters the dramatic moment with hilarious anecdotes about his experiences and his fellow performers. It’s at that moment too that he first talks about his sexuality, not in a political way, but as a cheeky aside about how sexy some of the leading men are in the film.
It’s a thread throughout the evening, his reluctance to “come out” and his regret at having not done it sooner. He’s more than made up for it since dedicating much of his life to the cause.
The first half continues with a sometimes moving and sometimes funny charting of his childhood passion for theatre and theatres, tales of his home towns of Wigan and Bolton, then his time at Cambridge before finally realising that his future lies in professional theatre and not as a keen amateur. He talks about rep, about digs and about tight rehearsal periods and the whole is littered with a who’s who of British theatre, he has over the years worked with not just some but perhaps all of the greats, too many to list here. Along the way he performs short extracts from some of his roles and reads again some of his favourite poems, again not reading but performing from memory. The first half moves fast and before we know it we are at the interval, the bars buzzing with absolute delight at what we are already declaring is a theatrical triumph.
The second half is given over mainly to his great passion, Shakespeare, and he unloads from the trunk that has he has slowly been unloading artefacts and props from, a tray of books, the complete canon of the bard’s works. “Can we name them all?” he asks. Well this is a packed theatre full of theatre fans so of course amongst us we can. What none of us could do is deliver a passage or an anecdote for each and every one, the comedies, tragedies, histories, late plays, difficult plays… he has something for each and every one. It’s an impressive feat of learning, of thinking on his feet as no doubt the list unfurls in a different sequence at every performance – and the audience lap it up. This is his history, his world and his art. It’s a passionate expose of who he relates to the theatre, to audiences and to how he has lived his life and it is a privilege to experience this in what he describes as the “now”. And that is actually the core of the show, the love of performing live for a present audience.
There is little doubt that McKellen is one of the greatest actors ever to grace the boards if not the greatest. His work in film has always been great, from the blatantly commercial to the less so, but it is here, in the live theatre that you get to share the true talent of this man. Did I say one of the greatest? Perhaps that should read THE greatest.
Theatre Royal Brighton