Sir Ian McKellen on being King Lear, the importance of 'seeing buttons' and the joy of imagination at the theatre

Ahead of Sir Ian McKellen's sell-out shows at four theatres around the north, Gail Bell looks back at the actor's enduring love of Shakespeare, his commitment to small, regional theatres and how he is still learning 'night by night' at 80

Sir Ian McKellen is set to tread the boards at the Lyric in Belfast for the first time
Gail Bell

IF, AS Shakespeare imagines, 'all the world's a stage', then surely no-one has made a more dramatic mark on it than Sir Ian McKellen, with spell-binding, nuanced portrayals of everyone from the Bard's King Lear to Gandalf in Lord of The Rings, Magneto in the X-Men films and even Gus (the 'theatre cat', what else?) in Andrew Lloyd Webber's famous feline musical, Cats.

Now, this gladiatorial crusader of stage and screen is set to tread the boards at the Lyric in Belfast for the first time in a highly anticipated (and sold out) one-man show as part of his '80 theatres at 80' tour to raise funds for regional venues across the UK.

The recently-turned 80-year-old has been acting since his teenage years at the Bolton School and is now so famous he has at least two blue plaques to his name – despite these usually being erected posthumously.

One is mounted on the wall of an eatery in Liverpool, informing visitors that "Sir Ian McKellen sat at Table 5 and enjoyed a jacket potato and a latte" while another can be viewed at a house in Burnley where the actor was born – although the venerable octogenarian recently told a bemused Graham Norton that, during a visit there, he believed they had "put it on the wrong house".

So, it is fitting that after being given so much by his profession, the award-winning actor and Cambridge-educated gay rights activist – who came out as gay live on Radio 3 in 1988 while arguing against Section 28 and is one of only a few openly gay men to be knighted – is intent on 'giving back' and paying his dues to the regional theatres where he and so many of his esteemed peers were given their first 'break'.

"Live theatre has always been thrilling to me," says McKellen.

"Growing up in Lancashire, I was grateful to those companies who toured beyond London and I'm celebrating my 80th birthday by touring a new solo show to theatres I know well – and a few that I don't.

"The show starts with Gandalf and will probably end with an invitation to act with me on stage."

Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf in the hit film adaptation of Lord of The Rings

Who could refuse? Certainly no-one in Belfast, where the acting star has presented previous solo shows but never performed at the Lyric. McKellen was conferred with an honorary degree by the University of Ulster in 2013 and the inclusion of four Northern Ireland venues on his tour – the Waterside Theatre in Derry, Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena, and Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey – is a coup for all involved.

The Lyric was chosen for this fund-raising tour because it was a producing theatre and also because some of the actor's ancestors hailed from the north – notably his great-great grandfather James McKellen from Ballymena, who was an evangelical Protestant preacher.

According to Claire Murray, head of development and marketing at the Lyric, the actor's generosity will make a huge difference to young thespians, producers, writers and directors of the future.

"Regional theatre is where Sir Ian first started out himself and it's where every actor begins, so he understands the struggle," says Murray, who also has her own production company, Blunt Fringe.

"Thanks to Sir Ian's generosity with this fundraiser, in just two nights he will raise almost £25,000 and fund two new apprenticeships; one for a production intern and the other for a trainee assistant director, both of which which went live last week.

"We are so excited for this event and we will be laying out the red carpet for him. We struggle to fund-raise, generally, as it's really difficult in the current climate, so this is a massive thing for us. I am not surprised the event was sold out in 45 minutes."

It is telling that, despite having perfected the art of Shakespearean acting to the highest level over the years, McKellen maintains that he is still honing his craft.

In a recent, wide-ranging interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, the actor said playing King Lear again at the age of 79 was just as "compelling" as the first time.

"I'm much, much better at the job than I used to be," he offers, modestly.

"If you do 100 Lears in a row, the 100th one is going to be more insightful than the first. I learn, night by night, and King Lear is such a compelling role. There is a wonderful line at the end of the play where he is running out of life and his breath is going and he says to another character, quite quietly, 'Pray you, un-do this button... thank you, sir'.

"In this great, great tragedy, something as ordinary as a button takes on significance and I am convinced that in Shakespeare's day, audiences would have actually seen the button – and if they could see the button, they could see the eyes.

"In the theatre, it is so important to be in touch with the audience and to be heard. Microphones are used in some theatres now, so that actors can be heard in a large space... well, I'd rather be in a small space, in an intimate space, where no shouting is required."

On the enduring attraction of Shakespeare in the modern age, he simply puts it down to there being so much in every scene that is still relevant to "life, living and humanity".

"That was Shakespeare's genius," McKellen maintains.

"He knew more about us than any any other human who has ever lived. Why do his wonderfully complicated characters appeal to me? Because they're wonderfully and complicatedly written. Words are very important to me, hence, tweeting I don't much value."

Although credited as having a rare ability to communicate emotional complexity and "a troubled inwardness" by Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells, McKellen still has a love of pantomime (and his sweet-throwing days as Widow Twankey) and admits he wouldn't be the first actor to "caricaturize" the business, saying: "We do films for money, television for fame, but the real thing is acting in the theatre."

Sir Ian McKellan as Magneto in the X-Men film series

What is real about it, he argues, is the presence of the audience; the shared experience.

"I used to peep through the curtains at a matinee and remind myself of why we were all there," the actor recalls.

"We were doing it for these people who have never seen the show. The fact that I had done it a score of times was irrelevant. On the other hand, a film just rolls on; it's dead, in a sense, and the audience can't affect the outcome. But, in the theatre, the audience can stop a performance with applause and make their experience audible to the actors – which we relish.

"In the cinema, you can actually be in Middle Earth or wherever. People say that can't happen in the theatre – well, it can, only in the theatre, you use your imagination, and that is a very powerful thing indeed."

:: Ian McKellen On Stage with Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others & You, the Lyric, Belfast (July 25 and 26), The Braid, Ballymena (July 29), Waterside Theatre, Derry (July 29), Theatre at The Mill, Newtownabbey (July 31 and August 1). All performances are sold out.

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