[23 March 2009]
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)
Catching Ian McKellen’s tour-de-force performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis required connections, a small fortune or lots of luck. Now all you need is a TV set.
A year and a half after the great actor’s stint in Minneapolis, PBS will air the full production of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” recorded at England’s Pinewood Studios - home base for the James Bond series - at the conclusion of the play’s limited tour.
The tie to 007 is appropriate since the title role requires the stamina, strength and savvy of an action hero - one who learns all too late that you only live once.
With that in mind, one could forgive the 70-year-old actor for merely recycling his stage performance for the cameras. But McKellen, who’s currently touring Britain with his “X-Men” nemesis Patrick Stewart in “Waiting for Godot,” said that’s no longer his style.
“For the first 15 to 20 years of my career, it was my great pride to be a professional who gave the same performance every night,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether you were in Minneapolis or London. McKellen would deliver.
“Then I worked with a director who said, ‘You’re talking about dead theater, Ian, and I want you to be involved in live theater, which is a performance for this audience and this audience alone. You have to respond to the fact that you’re 24 hours older than you were when you last played the part, and therefore it would be foolish to think you could do it exactly the same.’”
McKellen spoke fondly of his time in the Twin Cities and of his experience working with director Tyrone Guthrie in a 1963 production of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” at a regional theater in Nottingham.
“Guthrie taught me as much about acting and Shakespeare as anyone since,” said McKellen, who played the supporting role of Tullus Aufidius. “It was late in his life and he was working hard at trying to understand what was the best sort of theater in which to do Shakespeare. He was convinced that it depended on the close relationship between the audience and the actor. From that point of view, the Guthrie Theater is, you know, one of the great theaters in the world.”
McKellen has become quite comfortable with shifting Shakespeare from the stage to the screen. His Richard III, Iago, Hamlet, Macbeth and King Edward have all been preserved on tape or film. McKellen said past experiences have taught him how to make adjustments.
“It’s rather like coming back to rehearsals, where the director was sitting close in a way that no theater audience ever could,” he said. “There are things I do in this performance which I didn’t ever do onstage. I don’t know. I’m lucky of late to have been in front of the camera quite a lot and I’m relaxed and treat it as my friend. There are so many details - I can’t point them out to you - in which this performance is particular. And so it should be.”
One, um, particular that made some Guthrie-goers gasp won’t be seen in the PBS production. Director Trevor Nunn decided not to include the full-frontal nude scene that occurs as Lear sinks deeper into dementia. That was just fine with McKellen.
“Inevitably, if a man or woman takes his clothes off onstage, the eyes are going to go to those parts that are normally hidden and at that moment there may be something of import which the scene is about is lost,” he said. “Every night, when I take my clothes off, you know what I used to do? Pull in my stomach. That’s pathetic. I was playing an old man. I should have let it all hang out, and I couldn’t do that.”