ianmckellen.jpgBoard member diedye alerted us to this article at “Varsity” about a new book by Sir Ian McKellen and an appearance he’s making at The Octagon this Monday:

“Sir Ian McKellen is launching a new book about the Marlowe Society, of which he was President whilst reading English at Cambridge in the Sixties. He’s written the foreword, and now he wants to talk. The voice on the other end of the telephone line is eerily familiar, and terribly grand. McKellen is keen to discuss the book: “It is important for wider readership because of the influence the Marlowe Society has had on the professional theatre world,” he observes – an influence largely to do with their “shared approach” to the Elizabethan dramatic verse that is their area of interest.

He identifies this approach as to do with a “close attention” to, even academic “dissection” of, the way the plays are written. Dramatic verse, he explains, “is to do with how you speak it.” He is sceptical of those “wackier” dons who don’t think Shakespeare should be put on at all; the academics don’t know best: it is only “in performance” that you can “analyse what is dramatic about a play.” He displays a certain weariness with an overly academic approach to Shakespeare: “My heart used to sink when I was asked questions like ‘Is Coriolanus a tragedy: discuss.’ It’s about politics, how a society can be organised – but if it fits to being a ‘tragedy’, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.”

Does he read critical material when preparing a role? Less now than before; as an actor in a play, he doesn’t need to understand the whole play, he says; he is, after all, merely “a channel, an interpreter” for one part of it. It is his job to communicate the role “out of my head, through my body, to the audience. It is a process of discovery.” Those at this university that have protested about the nature of the reviewing system can take heart in McKellen’s disparaging opinion: “reviews are merely part of the publicity machine…they’re not for actors but to just get people to come to the play.” What is more, he says he has “scarcely ever read a comment that was helpful”; they are mostly “not very good,” even “nonsensical”. He describes instances when he has written to reviewers to explain or defend points he felt were unjust. Without fail, he says, they have immediately backed down.

In light of some recent debate here about whether Shakespeare should be put on so often, considering the disproportionate number of male roles as well as the plethora of other writers who remain neglected as a result of this preference, I ask him if he thinks it is right that Shakespeare be thus privileged. “He is the greatest writer that ever lived,” and indeed, he’s “all for” women playing men’s parts; after all, “there’s no more reason why a woman shouldn’t play Hamlet than an old man.” He rather thinks women should embrace the parts he wrote for them as Shakespeare “analysed the feminine condition better than any woman who’s ever written.” This assertion is a little bewildering, since Sir Ian has surely never experienced the ‘feminine condition’. He says he only speaks on subjects about which he is “expert”, namely “acting” and “being a gay man”. Not being a woman then. “I do hope Germaine Greer isn’t behind all of this…” I press on. Should theatre be provocative? “Well, I’ve never known theatre not to be provocative. Even a farce like Boeing Boeing challenges our views of stereotypes.” Indeed, for McKellen, this is a “definition of what art is”, be it painting, music, or theatre: something that “aims to have the mind readjusted”; people go to the theatre, he thinks, “hoping to lean forward”. In this it differs from film, which often “has no such pretensions”, and performs a different function in that people tend to “go to the cinema to relax”. Maybe this has something to do with a sense, especially in the younger audience, of alienation from the theatre? “It’s just the ticket prices”, he observes. In fact, price obstructions aside, theatre “is actually much more available than film”, as the audience is actually “in the presence of the people telling the story.”

The chance to be in the presence of this particular storyteller presents itself this Monday. He will be reminiscing at The Octagon, St Chad’s, at 8.30pm, and is prepared to “answer any question as long as it is not slanderous or filthy.” It will be a rare opportunity to hear one of Cambridge’s most illustrious theatrical alumni speak at close quarters, and it certainly should not be missed.[Read More]