Reviews

Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare

Ian McKellen as Macbeth in 1976, The South Bank Show

For anyone who appreciates acting this is highly recommended; for anyone studying acting, it's essential. If everything this educational was this entertaining, everyone in the world would have a Ph.D.


Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare

Director: Kirk Browning
Cast: Sir Ian McKellen
Length: 86 minutes
Distributor: E1 Entertainment
Network: PBS
Release date: 2010-01-12
Amazon

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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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