The following article also deals with Sir Ian’s thoughts on other Shakespeare plays, not just Richard III, but I have only selected the Richard comments. I should add that he doesn’t express an opinion on the real Richard.:-
What happened when Sir Ian McKellen met Shakespeare? The Big Issue was there to record the words of wisdom between two theatrical giants.
“Shakespeare is more than just plays in the theatre,” says Sir Ian McKellen. “I’ve got a little collection of Shakespeare figurines at home, that’s Shakespeare to me. A walk along the Avon is Shakespeare to me. A pub with his name on the sign. Shakespeare is a hydra-headed brand… which I hope you’ll quote. I’m rather pleased with that.”
McKellen is at the launch of the BFI’s Shakespeare on Film season, timed to celebrate 400 years of the Bard’s work (which is a nice way of saying that he died 400 years ago). Although associated most with the stage – obviously – no writer has more film credits. Currently, the Internet Movie Database lists 1,120 titles based on Shakespeare’s work. Among the series of events and films being screened, the undisputed highlight of the BFI’s Bard season will be a bus tour of London locations – including Battersea Power Station and Tate Modern, both used in the 1995 film adaptation of Richard III – which its star, Sir Ian McKellen, will host.
Besides his new job as a tour guide, McKellen is one of the world’s best-loved actors, adored for playing Gandalf in The Hobbit (pictured below) and Lord of the Rings, and revelling in the role of a malevolent Magneto in the X-Men franchise. He is no stranger to the small screen either, having had an extended stint in Coronation Street and camping it up savagely alongside Derek Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious.
But it is on stage where McKellen belongs, and the words of the Bard he was born to speak. So when he sits down with The Big Issue, wearing an immaculate three-piece suit and tartan tie (which if I’m not mistaken is the colours of the Clan Macbeth), we decide to ask him some of the questions Shakespeare posed in his plays that still resonate today…
Dramatis Personae: In the following, Steven MacKenzie will be standing in for Shakespeare. Sir Ian McKellen plays himself.
ACT 1 SCENE 1
SHAKESPEARE: The opening line of Richard III is, ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’. Is now still a winter of discontent? Is it always?
Shakespeare is now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday – now SIR IAN MCKELLEN: What I like about that first line is the first word, now. Shakespeare is now. Not tomorrow, not yesterday – now. If you trust Shakespeare and if you’ve got good actors and a good director, it will seem now. Even if it’s set in the past, the preoccupations and the characters will seem to be still alive and still relevant. As for winter of our discontent, that was used as a constant headline in the not too distant past. Somewhere in the world it is a winter of discontent.
SHAKESPEARE: The 1995 film adaptation you co-wrote and starred in was set in a fascist version of Britain in the 1930s – that was not now…
SIR IAN MCKELLEN: Shakespeare was writing about relatively recent events but using them to create his own story, so it seemed a good modern equivalent. We’re all aware that there was not that sort of king in the 1930s – just as there wasn’t actually that sort of king in the actual period. There’s an air of fantasy about the film but it’s also real as well. In the 1930s our royal family might have sided with the fascists.
ACT 1 SCENE 2
SHAKESPEARE: Also in Richard III is the line, ‘An honest tale speeds best, being plainly told’, but Shakespeare’s work isn’t always known for its simplicity.
SIR IAN MCKELLEN: It’s not the language that’s complicated. If you’ve got good acting practitioners, they’ll make you understand it. There is nothing in the opening speech of Richard III that a 10-year-old can’t understand. And I suspect when people say, ‘Oh I don’t understand Shakespeare,’ it’s because they’ve been exposed to an actor who wasn’t very good. Or they tried to read it themselves. I don’t think a child should any more read Shakespeare than they should read a Mozart opera. Leave it up to the professional musicians and professional actors