The legend that is Sir Ian McKellen is touring the UK at the age of 80 giving 80 one man shows at various venues across the country.
Our reporter Pauline Smith was lucky enough to catch him at HOME Manchester with others from the Pride in Ageing programme. Here she relives the evening from Gandalf to the Globe – and everything in between – with Sir Ian being living proof that there is no age limit on success.
The HOME stage was empty other than a large box, covered in travel stickers, like those old steamer trunks from the era when rich people travelled by sea.
Sir Ian walked on stage to spontaneous applause and reached into it and took out his first prop – Gandalf’s hat.
He spoke about filming Lord of the Rings and Sir Christopher Lee wanting his part rather than that of Sauron. After poking fun at him, he gave his first dramatic reading, when Gandalf confronts the Balrog on the Stone Bridge – with the famous lines echoing around the theatre – ‘You cannot pass,’ and “Fly, you fools!’.
With this final line, Sir Ian was gone and the stage was in darkness. It was simply Sir Ian wearing Gandalf’s hat, no special effects like the film, no companions, just the majesty of his voice conjuring up all those images from Tolkien’s book and the film.
When the stage was relit he was standing there holding Glamdring, Gandalf’s sword. He waved it over his head and then invited a member of the audience to join him in a mock fight. Sir Ian revealed that this stage prop was fibreglass and that he had the original sword from the films in his hallway in his London home.
We were all expecting more acting from the maestro, but he used the next part to talk about his early life growing up in Wigan and how at the age of 12 when his family moved to Bolton he began attending Bolton School and started acting before going to Cambridge University to study English literature and continue his acting, as he said, as an amateur.
His love of the theatre started when he was three after seeing Peter Pan at the Opera House in Manchester, and when he was nine his main Christmas present was a fold away Victorian theatre with cardboard scenery and wires to push on the cut-outs of the actors.
His first performance for this one man show on his 80th birthday was a homecoming of sorts for Sir Ian, playing at Albert Halls theatre in Bolton – where he announced mid performance as the town hall clock gave his half hour chime at 8.30pm, that was when he was born.
His elder sister Jean was very active too in the theatre as an amateur actor, director and producer and took him to his first Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night in Wigan when he was very small.
Many of his male ancestors were non-conformist lay preachers and the family originally came from County Antrim in Northern Ireland. That wonderful speaking voice came from somewhere it seems.
At the age of 18 he won a scholarship to Cambridge and became an active member of the Marlowe Society, where he appeared in 23 plays over three years. He downplayed his importance and said he only played minor roles, however he did in fact appear alongside Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn and Margaret Drabble (before she became an author) and was directed by Peter Hall and Dadie Rylands during his time at Cambridge. This was clearly the start of his career as an actor and he made a joke that when “Jacobi went professional he decided to do the same”.
Moving on from his early life, using only a scarf and a hessian bag with Twankey stencilled on the side he reprised his pantomime role of Widow Twankey. He changed his accent and his gait as he walked across the stage and entertained us with double entendres, almost to the level of “he’s behind you”.
After the laughter came the serious part, heralded by him saying that he was really 31, as back in 1988 he finally came out as gay. He talked for quite a while about growing up in a Christian non-conformist household in the 40s and 50s, and how there was never any discussion about sex, let alone being gay; and it was only when he went to Cambridge that he had his first as, he put it, illegal relationship.
And then he told us all about how he went to visit his stepmother in the Lake District, she was 80 at the time and he was 49 living in London; his visit was to tell her about him being gay and coming out as he didn’t want her to find out from the press or television, as by then he was very well known. She said, “I’ve known that for 35 years and I do hope that now you will be happy”.
My companion noticed that I was crying, and I whispered to him that I had told my parents that I was trans when I was 49 and that Sir Ian’s description brought back memories of that time, and how empathetic my mother was.
Sir Ian continued in a serious vein and talked about being gay and supporting older people and how he is the patron of the LGBT Foundation, who had launched a new programme – Pride in Ageing – to try and prevent discrimination against older LGBT people.
He reflected on how Manchester has been at the forefront of fighting for so many civil rights over the years, from the Peterloo Massacre 200 years ago, which was originally a demonstration about the voting franchise, through to the setting up of trade unions and establishment of the co-operative movement, to a reduction in working hours for shop workers and the Suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, onto the fight against Clause 28 in which Sir Ian was a prominent activist. After what seemed like twenty minutes but was really over an hour we came to the interval.
Back from the break, Sir Ian was dresses in a new outfit and ready to talk about his Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare in a real sense shaped Sir Ian’s life and his career and all the voice coaching and training that he had enabled him to start playing major roles from an early age.
Out of his big box of tricks, he withdrew a book case and all of Shakespeare’s plays, all 36 of them, and then proceeded to ask the audience to name the plays. It then became almost like a pantomime with the audience shouting out the names of plays during the course of this truly Shakespearean performance, which lasted for over an hour.
And of course in addition to the witty self deprecating asides, about him only playing a small part in several plays or those which he had never acted in, we were treated to several soliloquies including Macbeth.
He interspersed his acting by explaining something about each play and how rich Shakespeare’s language is and how much that one man has enriched our language.
The two, for me, are intertwined – Sir Ian and the bard; his own love of our language and its subtleties and depth of meaning came through word by word and each short soliloquy added to our enjoyment. It was more than a tour de force, it was being able to listen and watch a master at work peeling away each layer of an onion and showing us the richness in each layer.
All too soon the performance came to an end and the curtain came down to a standing ovation. We all hoped for some kind of encore, and then Sir Ian’s head popped out of the big box to lots of laughter, and he put a sticker with Manchester on it.
Then, a final short speech and prop appeared, a collection bucket for the homeless in Greater Manchester. We left our seats and made our way to the lobby, where unbelievably Sir Ian and Danny Boyle were holding the buckets as everyone streamed past them throwing in spare change. This collection along with proceeds from ticket sales raised thousands of pounds to support the venue’s community programme, #HOMEinspires.
Looking back now, it seems wonderful how he took us on his life’s journey interspersed with pathos and comedy and played us all like a magic lute, so that we received his messages. Sir Ian clearly loves his roots and referred to them on many occasions, from appearing in Coronation Street to the stories about his early life and discovering the wonder of the greasepaint and the applause. A truly magnificent and uplifting evening by a wonderful actor.
PHOTO CREDIT: Photo credit Oliver Rosser Feast Creative