Sevilodorf writes: It is sometimes said popular authors could publish shopping lists and make the best seller’s list. However, there are few actors who could hold a theater full of sweltering people enthralled while reading the Roget’s Thesaurus entry for ululate. Ian McKellen managed easily.
“I’m delighted to be back onstage in Los Angeles supporting the work of the Los Angeles Young Actors’ Company. The show lets me revisit favorite parts, tell a few stories, and present Gandalf onstage for the very first time! My aim is that the audience enjoy themselves as much as I shall, all in aid of the best of causes.” Ian McKellen
For 90 minutes, the stifling conditions of the Freud Playhouse were forgotten as Sir Ian told “a few stories” and led a tour along the rambling road of memory from his earliest film role in the unfinished The Bells of Hell to a preview of a new project with Tales of the City’s Armistead Maupin and speculation about a feature film devoted to Magneto’s earlier years courtesy of image enhancement “to keep at bay; Age and ages evils” .
To begin, the stage, set with a wingback chair, a small table, a hat rack and a lectern, plunged into darkness; then the lights came up to reveal Leigh Teabing (Da Vinci Code). Leaning heavily upon Teabing’s canes, McKellen made his way to the front of the stage saying, “Imagine Tom Hanks’ face when he saw me for the first time.” Continuing he said that it is always best to go to the source when creating a character. From his pocket, he produced a copy of The Da Vinci Code and read a description of Teabing. “Upon his legs he wore metal braces and used crutches used crutches?” Sir Ian examined the canes and reread the line, leading the audience into wondering along with him where exactly one might find secondhand crutches. “Such is the syntax of modern fiction,” McKellen added leading the laughter.
He then set a challenge, producing a cryptowheel (as I am not one of the 40 million people to have read Dan Brown’s book, I’m not certain what else to call it) and saying that the answer was a five-letter word and whoever figured it out got to keep the cryptowheel. He passed it to the first person in row AA saying, “Only one try, then pass it on, and if you figure it out, don’t shout about it. After all this is a one man show.” (The puzzle was solved by a young lady in the middle of row BB with the word grail.)
Taking his place at the lectern, Sir Ian thanked us for coming to this fundraiser for the Los Angeles Young Actors Company and spoke a little about the 1997 A Knight Out in LA.” Adding that it was always wise to check the acoustics of a theater before performing, he took up a Roget’s Thesaurus and began to read the entry for ululate.
“VERB: ULULATE, howl, cry, roar, bellow, blare, rebellow, latrate, bark, yelp; bay, bay the moon; yap, growl, yarr [obs.], yawl [dial.], yaup or yawp, snarl, howl; grunt, gruntle; snort, squeak; neigh, bray; mew, mewl, purr, caterwaul, miaow; bleat, low, moo; troat [rare], croak, crow, screech, caw, coo, gobble, quack, cackle, gaggle, guggle; chuck, chuckle; cluck, clack; chirp, cheep, chirrup, chirk [obs.], peep, sing, pule, twitter, chatter, hoot, wail, cuckoo; hum, buzz; hiss, blatter, blat [colloq.].”
With each word, his voice changed, displaying the mastery of intonation and expression that makes him a star of stage and screen.
(The following anecdotes are not recorded in the order nor with the humor in which they were related but merely the order and with the scant details which my frail memory can recall. And no, I did not take notes verbatim, the words however echo within my mind and Google is my friend.)
Wordsworth, The Prelude
Sir Ian went to Dove Cottage in Grasmere where Wordsworth lived and wrote from December 1799 to May 1808, the years of his supreme work as a poet. In the “dead of night after all the tourists had left” Sir Ian and the sound engineers recorded the entire “Prelude” of which we were treated to only a small portion.
(http://www.englit.ed.ac.uk/studying/undergrd/english_lit_2/Handouts/cen_wordsworth_prelude.htm lines 372 to 501
383The moon was up, the Lake was shining clear
384 Among the hoary mountains; from the Shore
385 I push’d, and struck the oars and struck again
386 In cadence, and my little Boat mov’d on
387 Even like a Man who walks with stately step
388 Though bent on speed. It was an act of stealth
389 And troubled pleasure; not without the voice
390 Of mountain-echoes did my Boat move on,
391 Leaving behind her still on either side
392 Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
393 Until they melted all into one track
394 Of sparkling light. A rocky Steep uprose
395 Above the Cavern of the Willow tree
396 And now, as suited one who proudly row’d
397 With his best skill, I fix’d a steady view
398 Upon the top of that same craggy ridge,
399 The bound of the horizon, for behind
400 Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
The Bells of Hell (1966) unfinished
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
And the little devils have a sing-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
Oh death where is they sting-a-ling-a-ling, oh grave thy victory?
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, for you but not for me.
(sung by Ian McKellen for us)
His first film role was as Gregory Peck’s lieutenant in film set during WWI. Sir Ian recalls Mr. Peck as a wonderful actor whose British accent was spot on save for one small area. Thus, Ian spent days cautiously approaching the director and explaining that Peck’s character would not call him loo-tenant but rather lef-tenant as a proper British officer would do. The director’s response after several days, “Yes, Ian, but the British are only five percent of the audience base.” The film was never completed due to snow coming early in the Alps that year.
Priest of Love (1981)
While filming in Italy, they used the house where D.H. Lawrence (author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover) and his wife lived. There was an elderly lady in the village who had been a servant in the household when she was just a young girl. Ian, in full costume, came down to pay his respects to her and she looked up and said, “Ah, Lorenzo.” As McKellen says, “There is no finer compliment.”
Then while filming in Mexico, he looked down from his balcony into a beautiful emerald pool to see Ava Gardner swimming. She looked up and waved to him. “Ava Gardner knows me!!”
In the first days of filming, there was one tiny trailer for all his female co-stars: Ava Gardner, Janet Suzeman, Penelope Keith and Ava’s maid. To add insult to injury, at lunch time, a sign was posted on the trailer “Bathroom.” This was to be the facilities for the entire crew. Ava didn’t say a word, remaining a perfect lady. Ian suggested she call the producers. She said, “No, I’ll just call Frank.”
Almost magically, several large caravans appeared in the wilds of Mexico. Sinatra came through for his ex-wife.
Leaden Echo/Golden Echo– Gerard Manley Hopkins
Sir Ian recited a pair of poems about age and beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of his favorite poets.
HOW to kéepis there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, from vanishing away? Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep, Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
When the thing we freely fórfeit is kept with fonder a care, Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder 45 A care kept.Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. Yonder.What high as that! We follow, now we follow.Yonder, yes yonder, yonder, Yonder.
About six lines from the end, he forgot the line and had to grab a scripted version and then read it aloud for about two lines until it all came back.
Cold Comfort Farm (1995)
McKellen returned to the lectern to tell us of that there were those who wanted a warning label on the film The Da Vinci Code that it was fiction not fact. He then wondered if there should be warning labels on other books. Particularly the book the Gideons put out (holds up a Bible) after all there are “metaphors and even parable there”.
He then spoke of the generations of ministers in his family and how he based his portrayal of Amos Starkadder partly on one of them. In a proper hellfire and brimstone style he delivered Starkadder’s monologue.
Ye miserable, crawlin’ worms. Are ye here again then? Have ye come like Nimshi, son of Rehoboam, secretly out of your doomed houses, to hear what’s comin’ to ye? Have ye come, old and young, sick and well, matrons and virgins, if there be any virgins amongst you, which is not likely, the world being in the wicked state that it is. Have ye come to hear me tell you of the great, crimson, licking flames of hell fire? Aye! You’ve come, dozens of ye. Like rats to the granary, like field mice when it’s harvest home. And what good will it do ye? You’re all damned! Damned! Do you ever stop to think what that word means? No, you don’t. It means endless, horrifying torment! It means your poor, sinful bodies stretched out on red-hot gridirons, in the nethermost, fiery pit of hell and those demons mocking ye while they waves cooling jellies in front of ye. You know what it’s like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in hell!
Apt Pupil (1998)
Sir Ian told of meeting with Bryan Singer the director who thought he (McKellen) was too young to play the part of Kurt Dussander the aged Nazi. Singer then went on to tell how he thought that guy in Cold Comfort Farm would be perfect for the part. McKellen says that Singer now denies this.
In Apt Pupil, one scene involves a big ginger tomcat. There were four. One who would walk from A to B no matter who or what was in the way. Another who would eat on cue. A third who was used only for the fierce close ups and otherwise approached only by members of the crew wearing chain mail. The fourth was a docile, pliable creature who you could do anything to or with. McKellen mimed picking cat up by his tail and swinging it about.
The cats were supervised by a lady from the SPCA who sat doing the crossword puzzle on the set everyday. She totally ignored everyone, but if she was not there, the cats did not work.
One scene called for Kurt Dussander to light the oven and shove the cat in. Luckily they were using the docile cat. Ian stroked the cat and put it in the oven. Somehow the oven went “poof”. The cat’s fur caught fire. Everyone raced madly about with the extinguisher. The SPCA lady didn’t even look up from her puzzle, she just called out, “Did it burn the skin?” “Uh, er no, no, it’s only slightly singed.” Cat with fur singed off half its body just lay in his arms purring. “All right then, carry on.”
On the last day of cat filming, the SPCA lady called him over to say, “You are equal to any animal I’ve worked with.”
At one point, McKellen led the audience in a Shakespeare Shout Out – trying to name all 37 of the Bard’s plays. Thirty were named. Then McKellen spoke about the Hobart Shakespeareans from a public elementary school in Los Angeles. PBS stations throughout the country are airing a show about this group during August, so check their schedules.
Referring again to the author being the best source of how to create a character, he told how for his portrayals of Richard III he chose to act upright instead of hunched over. Interpreting the “half a man” as one side of body being straight and perfect, while the other is twisted and useless.
He then gave us the opening monologue.
Gloucester: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lowered upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other;
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mewed up
About a prophecy which says that G
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
The room was suddenly chill with evil.
Another Shakespearean piece he recited was a monologue about Immigration. I can not recall the name of the character or the play< bad me> but it was never presented on stage until Ian did it, thus he can claim to be the only living actor to create an original Shakespeare character.
X Men Trilogy (2000, 2003, 2006 as Magneto)
Working again with Bryan Singer in X Men One and Two, McKellen spoke of his delight with Magneto’s costume: long flowing cape and dashing helmet. He also told of the “rigors” of portraying Magneto’s power over metals. The necessity of getting the wrist movements “just right” in the first movie when Magneto raised the police cars and let them drop.
Then in X-3, the difficulty in moving the entire Golden Gate Bridge. Pantomiming the scene (wind machine blowing, cape flowing) McKellen shouted the directions from Brett Ratner”More, Ian!!” Twisted face and clenched muscles. “More Ian!!” Knees bent under, face pained, he struggles to move the bridge.
“That’s fine, Ian! Ian!!! … Less Ian!!!”
Gods and Monsters (1998)
Reaching down beside the wingback chair, McKellen takes out a portable easel and begins to assemble it. Telling the audience, it normally sits in the front hall of his home in England. He then reveals that it once belonged to James Whale (director of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and subject of the movie Gods and Monsters.) In the final days of Whales life he would sit painting beside his pool and recalling his life. Taking up one of Whale’s brushes and his palette from the easel, McKellen dons a white hat and takes on the persona of James Whale giving us his side of this scene, though Clay’s portion is unsaid the audience can still “hear” it.
WHALE: Same difference, Mr. Boone. Disgust, fear of the unknown — all part of the great gulf that stands between us. Am I right in assuming that you’ve had little experience with men of my persuasion?
CLAY: There’s no people like you in my crowd.
WHALE: No teammates in football? No comrades in Korea?
CLAY: You must think the whole world is queer. Well it’s not. War sure isn’t.
WHALE: Oh, there may not be atheists in the foxholes, but there are occasionally lovers.
CLAY: You’re talking through your hat now.
WHALE: Not at all. I was in the foxholes myself.
CLAY: You were a soldier?
WHALE: I was an officer. (Clay breaks his pose to turn and look at Whale.)
CLAY: This was World War I?
WHALE: No, my dear. The Crimean War. What do you think? The Great War. You had a Good War, while we had a war without end.
There were trenches when I arrived, and trenches when I left, two years later. Just like in the movies. Only the movies never get the stench of them. The world reduced to mud and sandbags and a narrow strip of rainy sky. (A dry snort) But we were discussing something else. Oh yes. Love in the trenches.
Barnett. Was that his name? Leonard Barnett. He came to the front straight from Harrow. And he looked up to me. Unlike the others, he didn’t care that I was a workingman impersonating his betters. How strange, to be admired so blindly. I suppose he loved me. But chastely, like a schoolboy.
CLAY: Something happened to him?
WHALE: I remember one morning in particular; a morning when the sun came out. Odd, how even there one could have days when the weather was enough to make one happy. He and I were standing on the fire step and I showed him the sights of no-man’s land, through the periscope. It was beautiful. The barbed wire was reddish gold, the water in the shell holes green with algae, the sky a clear quattrocento blue. And I stood shoulder to shoulder with a tall apple-cheeked boy who loved and trusted me.
Don’t do this to me again, Mr. Boone. I absolutely refuse.
You will not set me on another walk down memory lane. Not this lane. Not today.
CLAY: I didn’t
WHALE: Why do I tell you this? I never told David. I never even remembered it until you got me going.
CLAYL: You’re the one who started it.
WHALE: You’re very clever, Mr. Boone. You just sit there and let me talk. What a sorry old man, you’re thinking. What a crazy old poof. (Comes closer) Why are you here? What do you want from me?
CLAY: You asked me to model. Remember?
WHALE: Of course I remember. Do you think I’m so senile —
McKellen turns the picture he’s been “painting” to reveal James Whales’ Boy.
After the movie Gods and Monsters came out, McKellen was in Atlanta doing publicity for the film and the Governor of Georgia wanted to honor him by naming the date of his visit Ian McKellen Day. Unfortunately, the day was already taken -being Martin Luther King Day. So instead the governor made him an “aide de camp” in his gubernatorial Militia, with the status thenceforward of Lieutenant Colonel – which McKellen proclaims “must make me the only openly-gay senior officer currently serving in the armed forces of the USA.”
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City
Sir Ian informed the audience that Maupin has written another set of Tales and read a stream of conscious monologue about an older gay man’s reactions to a website posting pictures of younger men seeking older men. Done with great humor but not suitable for a PG13 audience, nor yet available for me to swipe from Google.
Lord of the Rings: The Bridge of Khazad Dum
(highly condensed version here .)
From the hatrack where it has been inconspicuously hanging, McKellen takes up a sword. From the audience comes the whispers, “Glamdring.” McKellen smiles and nods. There were several on the set, he tells the audience. The one for close ups which was only a hilt, the lighter one for carrying in extended takes and some fight scenes. But this, this is the hero sword.
Taking out a worn copy of Lord of the Rings, McKellen begins to read from “The Bridge of Khazad-dum.” The heat of the theater fitting as we, along with the Fellowship, race toward the chasm, Gandalf with Glamdring held high leading us onward.
In front the road sloped down swiftly, and some way ahead there stood a low archway; through it the glowing light came. The air became hot.
Then before our minds’ eyes appeared a shape, “a dark shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape, maybe, yet greater; and a power and terror seemed to be in it and to go before it.”
“It came to the edge of the fire and the light faded as if a cloud had bent over it. Then with a rush, it leaped across the fissure.”
“A Balrog.” McKellen, sweat pouring down his weary face, leaned heavily upon Glamdring. “What an evil fortune.”
Taking up Glamdring, he cried, “Over the bridge! Fly! This is a foe beyond any of you. I must hold the narrow way. Fly!”
With words alone, he carried us to the bridge of Khazad-dum. In the middle stood Gandalf and on the other each The Balrog beneath the stage lights Glamdring gleamed cold and white.
“You cannot pass. I am a Servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udun. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.”
From out of the shadow a red sword leaped flaming. Glamdring glittered white in answer.
“You cannot pass.”
Gandalf lifted his staff and crying aloud, he smote the bridge before him. The staff broke asunder and fell from his hand. A blinding sheet of white flame sprang up. The bridge cracked.
With a terrible cry the Balrog fell forward, and its shadow plunged down and vanished. But even as it fell, it swung its whip, and the thongs lashed and curled about the wizard’s knees, dragging him to the brink. He staggered, and fell, grasped vainly at the stone and slid into the abyss. “Fly, you fools!” he cried, and was gone.
Dazed, we came to the bright daylight of Dimrill Dale, the slow drum beats of doom echoing hollowly as McKellen reads, “Grief at last wholly overcame them, and they wept long: some silent and standing, some cast upon the ground. Doom, doom. The drum beats faded.”
There is no sound within the theater.
Ian’s encore: Being Knighted
You arrive at Buckingham Palace with two friends from whom you are quickly separated. Into a massive chamber you go along with all the fire fighters and teachers and philanthropists as well as the sprinkling of movie and stage actors. A chamberlain enters and proceeds to tell you not to worry, that they do this all the time, and the only thing you need to remember is “mmmphftt” What? What panic what did he say . oh well just do what the fellow in front of you does. Enter the throne room to find the Queen, dressed in lime green — lime green, surely not — yes, lime green and with her handbag tossed upon the throne of England. You wait until your name is called . Jijann Mac Cullen my God all these years I’ve been pronouncing my own name incorrectly . Stagger on kneel before the Queen to receive the medal (Sir Ian took it from his pocket and draped it around it his neck and took up Glamdring and used it to “knight” himself) two questions per person from her Majesty . “Are you working?” Why yes, Your Highness, at the Royal Theater “Does anyone still go to the theatre?” Uh occasionally, Your Majesty. Back out slowly .
Does anyone still go to the theatre?
Why, yes, Queen Elizabeth, they do. Especially to see such wonderful performers as Sir Ian McKellen, a Knight to be remembered forever.