An Evening With Sir Ian McKellen
In the beginning, there was darkness.
And then from the distance came a low voice, speaking out the words of a tale written decades before; words that were once well known, and words that the speaker had made famous in more recent years.
You shall not pass.
YOU SHALL NOT PASS!
He cried out boldly, reading to the audience from a thick novel in his hand the battle of the wizard and the Balrog, right up to his decent into the abyss; and all the while there was such a riveting silence in the room that not even a breath could be heard, other than his. Then, as light finally found him leaning back on a large travel-sticker covered trunk to the right side of his stage, Sir Ian McKellen closed the book, and looked at the audience, who were rapt with attention.
“Before it was a movie, it was a book.” He quipped. Everyone laughed and applauded, and so began one of the most profound and wonderful evenings of my life.
Sir Ian McKellen turned 80 years old on May 25th, 2019, and he took it upon himself to celebrate by touring the United Kingdom doing a one-man show of his life and his work as an actor. When the 80 touring days had gone, he did another 80 days in London’s West End, and I was lucky enough to get a seat to one of the final performances of this incredible production.
Ian opened the trunk behind him, explaining that actors used to haul them around with their costumes and stage props in them. He pulled a small round side table out from the large box and, having finished his reading and a few humorous stories, set the Tolkien book on it after placing it on the opposite side of the stage.
Then he pulled a great sword out of the box and beaming, he unsheathed it and showed it to the audience, and as he did I wished I’d bought a front row seat because he gave several people there a close look at it. He pointed out the writing on it.
“That’s elvish!” He announced proudly, and then shrugged, indicating he had no idea what it meant.
“I have to admit; I’d never read the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson came to my house in London without even so much as a screenplay and asked me to play Gandalf.” He recalled with a chuckle. Then he mentioned going to New Zealand and meeting the rest of the cast, pausing dramatically to swoon over Legolas, who was played by the beautiful Orlando Bloom.
He shared the unmatched experience of being taken by helicopter up to a peak in the southern Alps along with the rest of the Fellowship, and walking in snow knee-deep toward Mount Cook. He spoke of how profound it was to realize that he was walking in a place where no other human had ever walked; not even New Zealander Edmund Hillary; the famed climber who was the first person to summit Mount Everest. Sir Ian got to meet Sir Edmund Hillary, and was duly impressed by the mountain of a man.
Our Gandalf teased several times about how so many others had reverently touted having read The Hobbit every year; always saying it with some derision, as he hadn’t, and yet there he was in the role. Ian loved New Zealand, and doing the role of Gandalf.
He talked a short while on it, and then he called out to the audience, asking for a young person; a child. From the back stalls of the ground floor, a proud mother called out loudly, and her son was taken to the stage, where Ian helped him up in front of the audience and showed him the sword Glamdring, and then gave it to him to hold, playing a wonderful part in it. Then he handed him the scabbard as well, and after the lad had hefted it for a few minutes, he asked the boy to sheathe it again, and the boy struggled with the size of it, but then figured it out, and all the while Ian was supportive and encouraging to him in it.
Ian took a selfie with the boy and then gave him an autographed program. Ian pointed to a photo inside it and asked the boy if he knew who it was in the photo. The boy said no. Ian laughed and said that he wouldn’t tell Patrick Stewart that.
When the boy had gone back to his seat, Ian proceeded to share stories of his youth; his first time in the theatre at the tender age of three, to see Peter Pan, and his growing years; experiences in acting, and schools as he aged, all the way to Cambridge, where he said he met with Brigadier Tom Henn CBE, and did an impromptu rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry V right there in the office, winning him a scholarship.
He spoke of people who inspired him, and people he’s worked with over all the years. Dame Judi Dench, Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney, Lawrence Olivier, Dame Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov, Michael Crawford, Christopher Lee, and so many other brilliant actors who have changed the face of the stage and the screen in their lifetimes.
While dressing himself in a kerchief and picking up a purse with the name ‘Twankey’ written across it wildly, he talked about the character he had played in the old Aladdin production.
Then he dug into his bag and pulled out sweets for the audience, tossing them both on the floor level, and up into the mezzanine as well. As if throwing out candy from his stage parade to his adoring fans wasn’t sweet enough, he then pulled out oranges and did the same, followed by bananas, and even a cucumber; all the while in character, talking to the audience as Widow Twankey, and making everyone laugh until they cried.
He sang part of his role in the new 2020 film Cats, and spoke of his part in Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee, which he is certain no one has ever seen.
All the while as he spoke, he pulled booklets and pamphlets from his big trunk, showing the audience remembrances of his shows all throughout his life, and as he spoke on each one, he took it across the stage, finally giving it a resting place on the table before going for another.
The stacks on the table grew, and Ian pulled out a director’s chair that had his name misspelled on the back of it. He showed it to the crowd with some chagrin before setting it near the table and occasionally sitting in it as he talked.
With great humor, sharp wit, dry irony, and some earnest truth, Ian also shared some of the more difficult times of his life; the greatest of which was coming “…as the American’s say, out of the closet,” and telling his step-mother, whom he loved most in the world, about it. He struggled with it, and then discovered that she had known for more than three decades. He went public with his lifestyle, and then marched and protested and banged on doors for the basic human rights that anyone other-than-straight was denied.
There were tender tears throughout the audience, and there were many moments of laughter; even at his not-so-subtle political jabs at Donald J Trump and Boris Johnson, neither of whom he likes.
Ian teased about how a young woman had seen him at the stage door and told him that she’d seen him in Harry Potter. He rolled his eyes and said that he asked Michael Gambon if he ever got mistaken for being Ian McKellen, and Michael said yes. Ian asked him what he did whenever it happened, and people thrust photos of Gandalf at him for signatures. Michael said he simply signs Ian’s name on them.
There was an intermission, and Ian left every person astounded and ravenous for more.
When he came back to the stage, there was no grand entrance; he merely walked back on, having changed his shirt and flamboyant suit jacket with a long-scarved interior, into the same styles of clothes in different colors, and headed for his large box again.
It was then time for one of his true passions; Shakespeare. It is a solid supposition that Ian knows every word of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays, and as a jaw-dropping treat, he recited several of them off to the sea of eager faces before him.
Ian pulled out copies of all of Shakespeare’s works and laid them out on top of his actor’s trunk, in order of genre; comedy, tragedy, history, and so on. He told the audience to call out the titles of Shakespeare’s works, and as each title came up, he would pick up the book and either recite from it, or share a brief story about having done it or seen it. When he’d finished with it, he walked it over and set it on the table, one on top of the other, until the stack towered.
He mentioned more than once, having played Claudio, and not enjoying the role. He said he wished he’d gotten to play Benedick, but time had passed him by too far to be able to do the role. He pointed out Kenneth Branagh doing many roles, as well as acting in, producing, and directing them.
It seemed that in taking the lid off of his big actor’s traveling box, he had opened a treasure box for all to see, showing each gem of his life to us, and telling us about them, as would any child with a box of treasures; something I myself had, and something I understand completely.
Sir Ian gave several recitations, from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth; or, the Scottish Play, and there couldn’t have been a dry eye in the house as he made a memorial recitation from Cymbeline, in remembrance of several friends who had passed; Christopher Lee, Stan Lee, Albert Finney, and many others.
Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious winters rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone and ta'en thy wages; Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o' the great, Thou art past the tyrants stoke; Care no more to clothe and eat; To thee the reed is as the oak; The sceptre, learning, physic, must All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning-flash, Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone; Fear not slander, censure rash; Thou hast finish'd joy and moan; All lovers young, all lovers must Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee! Nor no witchcraft charm thee! Ghost unlaid forbear thee! Nothing ill come near thee! Quiet consummation have; And renowned be thy grave.
He silenced the room with a powerful piece from Hamlet, and Othello, and mentioned his recent showing as King Lear. With each work, he held up a priceless piece of his heart, sharing his connections to them, and showing himself to everyone in the room through them, including mentioning the gay Antonio’s in more than one of Shakespeare’s works.
Toward the end of his show, Ian told his new friends all about another work that Shakespeare had written; one that not many had known about. There was a book written between 1596-1601 called The Book of Sir Thomas More. When it was written, Shakespeare was called upon to edit and contribute to it. The Bard wrote out 147 lines of More’s monologue. The book took on the serious political problem of immigrants being rejected in England at that time. Ian pointed out the irony that it’s still a severe problem not only in the United Kingdom as the country faces Brexit, but around the world as well.
Because the Queen’s censor during Shakespeare’s time, Edmund Tilney, had the book and play banned when it was written, it didn’t see the light of day or the stage until 1964, and it was Ian who brought the role to life. He had the unique honor of being the first person to act as the character More, in a Shakespearean role that had never been done before; a world premiere, six hundred years after William had penned the piece. The original copy of it can be seen in the British Library’s treasury room.
As we sat there in utter astonishment, Ian gave his audience the incredibly poignant and heartrending speech, written by Shakespeare centuries ago, which is exactly as relevant today as it was then. Oh wretched strangers, you immigrants who come to foreign shores for a new life; there are those who rage against you, and those who would welcome you, as did William, and Ian, in different centuries.
The Book of Sir Thomas More, Act 2, Scene 4
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise Hath chid down all the majesty of England; Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires, Authority quite silent by your brawl, And you in ruff of your opinions clothed; What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught How insolence and strong hand should prevail, How order should be quelled; and by this pattern Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought, With self same hand, self reasons, and self right, Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes Would feed on one another….
Say now the king Should so much come too short of your great trespass As but to banish you, whither would you go? What country, by the nature of your error, Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal, Nay, any where that not adheres to England, Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence, Would not afford you an abode on earth, Whet their detested knives against your throats, Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts, But chartered unto them, what would you think To be thus used? this is the strangers case; And this your mountainish inhumanity.
The night closed with powerful performances, lighthearted memories, gratitude, and laughter. It also closed with a cleverly fun bit, as the lights went out and when they came back on, Sir Ian himself was in the big box on the stage, and he popped out of it and produced a big yellow bucket. He asked his audience for donations, as most of the proceeds of his show are going to a long list of theatre charities.
I saw the door he left from as the show ended; with the great man coming off of the stage, into the audience, and out a side exit, and I knew that he was doing something special. When I left I made my way to the front of the theatre, and it was there that I found him, holding his bucket, and thanking patrons who passed him and dropped money in it on their way out of the door.
I passed him myself, after snapping a few swift photos, and thanked him for one of the greatest nights of my life; for it truly was that.
Profound, memorable, powerful, funny, insightful, dramatic, honest, deep, humorous, stunning, surprising, and more than all of those combined, it was in a word… spellbinding… which is exactly what you’d expect from a wizard, after all.