Ian McKellen on Stage at the Harold Pinter Theatre

In his now legendary appearance on Series Two of Extras, Ian McKellen described his acting technique for Ricky Gervais’s Andy Millman: “If we were to draw a graph of my process, my method, it would be something like this: Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Action! ‘Wizard, you shall not pass!’ Cut. Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Sir Ian.” Sean Mathias’s Ian McKellen On Stage, now at the Harold Pinter Theatre, put me in mind of the episode. Both the programme and Mathias’s show capitalize on McKellen’s considerable comedic talents, and examine, with more than a dash of irreverence, the actor’s craft. Though over long, On Stage is a delight, effervescent with McKellen’s joy in footlights, scripts, quick changes, and Peter Pan’s suspension wires: in short, all things theatre. 

The show opens with McKellen’s voice. Perched on his touring trunk, the now octogenarian reads Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. “Go back to the shadow!” he roars. And then, he gives the line for which he is better known than for any Shakespearian soliloquy: “You shall not pass!” Readings and scenes—the production’s second half is dedicated to selections from the Bard—alternate with anecdotes from McKellen’s journey to renown. A boyish enthusiasm for his profession, and deep appreciation of the audience, are evident throughout. 

Oh, but to get a peek at McKellen’s Rolodex. In his over sixty years on stage and screen he has worked with a veritable Rogue’s Gallery of great thespians. His uncle taught Alan Rickman—“He assured me he did not base Professor Snape on Uncle Ken”—and he was at Cambridge with Derek Jacobi, whom he describes as “emerging from the womb fully formed.” His impressions of Christopher “I-Read-The-Lord-of-the-Rings-every-year” Lee alone are worth the price of admission. He was a part of Laurence Olivier’s repertory company at the National Theatre, along with Maggie Smith, Albert Finney, and Judi Dench. McKellen’s comedic timing is faultless. “Anyone ever been to New Zealand?” he asks early in the show to scattered affirmations. “Huh. Anyone every been on a stamp in New Zealand?” He is illustrious, and accessible, simultaneously, and his description of his work in the Gay Rights Movement adds moments of gravity amidst the playfulness. 

Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Action! ‘Wizard, you shall not pass!’ Cut. Sir Ian. Sir Ian. Sir Ian.

The show’s energy, however, dips in the second half. McKellen is one of his generation’s great Shakespearian actors, and criticizing the inclusion of so many scenes and soliloquys seems a sort of sacrilege. Nonetheless, before the interval, the story is one that only McKellen can tell. Brilliant though he is as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Henry V, when he assumes the characters, he exits his personal narrative, and relinquishes the buoyant joy that has borne the evening to such heights.

The show’s duration—two hours twenty minutes plus a fifteen-minute interval—also taxes audience resources. I admit that the critique makes me feel ungrateful for McKellen’s largesse. For he seems to be motivated by the same instinct George Orwell identifies in Shakespeare: “He could not restrain himself from commenting on almost everything, although he put on a series of masks in order to do so. […] [H]e loved the surface of the earth and the process of life.” Happy 80th, Sir Ian. Long may this earth delight you. 

**All proceeds from Ian McKellen On Stage are donated to the host theatres.**


Ian McKellen on Stage is at the Pinter Theatre until 5 January 2020.

Photograph: Frederic Aranda

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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