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Ian McKellen as Macbeth in 1976, The South Bank Show
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Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare

(PBS; US DVD: 12 Jan 2010)

Shakespeare’s verse well spoken could be considered a sound superior even to Mozart’s music well played or his operas well sung—and this DVD is evidence of it. Available on the format for the first time, this is the 1982 PBS recording of the justly celebrated one-man show that Ian McKellen first performed in 1977 at the Edinburgh International Festival, and then toured, to increasing acclaim, around Great Britain and North America.


It is the sort of show that is often lazily characterized as ‘defying description’. Like most works that ‘defy description’, Acting Shakespeare in fact inspires a slew of descriptions: what it defies is a reductive definition. This is ‘An Evening with Ian McKellen’; it is one actor’s autobiography; it is a brief history of Shakespeare’s working life, and a longer history of the life of his work; it is a greatest hits set of Shakespearean speeches; and it is as fine a lesson in acting as is available for home viewing.


We are so accustomed to home viewing now involving the sight CGI spectacles seen on high definition televisions the size of small cinema screens, their soundtracks exploding around us at volumes Ozzy Osbourne would think excessive, that to put on a DVD and watch a major league movie star stand alone, in an unremarkable blue-grey shirt and greyish slacks, on an all but bare stage, is, at first, peculiar and jarring. It takes only minutes, though, to become captivated by this singular figure.


McKellen accepts the true challenge of Shakespearean acting: to perform the roles as Burbage would have performed them in their first runs, without special effects or scenery, with only the audience and the ‘wooden O’. In so doing, he extends to us the true challenge of appreciating Shakespeare: not to sit as passive spectators, but to work our imaginations around the words we hear, to participate in the performances we are experiencing, and so become a true audience. 


Particularly in America and—because of the enormous power of American movies—increasingly around the world, the continued influence of Method acting means that acting is now often considered purely in terms of imitation, and inhabitation of a character. ‘Performance’ is seen as a separate skill to acting and often, one almost irrelevant to it. The hoards of young drama students who, upon seeing, say, Sir Laurence Olivier for the first time think the most subtle and sublime of actors to be overacting is one example of this; the escalating number of Oscars awarded to portrayals of real life figures of whom footage exists is another.


In Acting Shakespeare we see the multiple layers of reality that can be applied to a performance. We see McKellen, we see McKellen playing Macbeth, and so we also see Macbeth. We also see McKellen pause his portrayal of Macbeth to comment upon both Macbeth and McKellen, and the business of each becoming the other. The performance is always informative, always thrilling and, incredibly, never confusing.


The range of performances McKellen exhibits is astonishing, not simply because, over an hour and a half, he plays Bottom and Hamlet and Macbeth and Prospero, or because in a single scene he plays both Prince Hal and Falstaff, and in another both Romeo and Juliet. The range of his performances is astonishing because of the varied styles and tones in which he delivers them.


He shows us Shakespeare as it is acted by bad actors, and as it is acted by brilliant actors; he shows Shakespeare as it was played centuries ago, and as it is played now. In one fascinating and exhilarating sequence, he not only plays Henry V, but also plays himself playing Henry V for the university tutor who decided to admit him to Cambridge. (Where, incidentally, he would perform Shakespeare alongside Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, David Frost and Peter Cooke.)


The passages between the readings are equally entertaining. McKellen’s anecdotes are delicious and expertly delivered; his impression of John Gielgud is wickedly amusing; and his stories of acting across the ages are as insightful as they are unforgettable.


What’s more, his analysis of scenes, or lines within scenes, or words within lines, is so accurate and inspiring that he, at times, appears to be playing the imaginary English Literature professor who, had he only taught us, we all secretly suspect would have released in us the next Norman Mailer or Marlon Brando.


For anyone who appreciates acting, Acting Shakespeare is highly recommended, but for anyone who wishes to study acting, it is essential. If everything this educational was this entertaining, everyone in the world would have a Ph.D.

Rating:

Scott Jordan Harris is Editor of the international film magazine The Big Picture and Co-Editor of The Spectator Arts Blog. He is a staff writer for both the print and online editions of Film International and has also contributed to many leading magazines, websites and journals, including Fangoria and Rugby World. Roger Ebert includes @ScottFilmCritic on his list of top


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