This summer, Sir Ian McKellen will be reprising his title role in Chichester Festival Theatre’s West End transfer of King Lear. After a sold-out run in 2017, this production will play in the Duke of York’s Theatre for 100 performances. McKellen has played Lear before, in 2007 with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has become well known for his frequent portrayal of Shakespeare’s leading men. These include Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth, Hamlet and Iago.
With a career spanning six decades, McKellen is something of a British icon and probably one of the most well-known and recognised faces in both film and theatre. He has gained an astounding number of awards including 6 Laurence Oliver Awards, 2 Critic’s Choice Awards, a Tony Award, a Golden Globe, and a SAG Award (to name a just a few).
From his beginnings in Bolton Little Theatre to his blockbuster role as Magneto in the X-Men franchise, McKellen is loved by the nation and heralded as one of the greats. Richard Barnett, whilst giving McKellen his honorary award from the University of Ulster, stated that McKellen’s performances have “guaranteed him a place in the canon of English stage and film actors”. An opinion I agree with wholeheartedly. You don’t get knighted for no reason, after all.
McKellen himself has suggested that this may be his last Shakespearian role and looking back over his incredible 60-year career it is astounding how a man who lived through the Second World War continues to capture generations and be one of the best actors in the business.
It has always struck me how McKellen has the brilliant quality of making everything he does seem important. He brings a kind of gravitas to each role and does nothing half-heartedly. From the way he walks across a stage, to the subtleties of eye contact, he engages the audience from the moment the play begins. Watching an interview about his depiction of Lear, I began to see the depths he goes to to create well rounded characters. He talks about creating a backstory despite there not being one written in by Shakespeare. This includes minute details such as Lear wearing two wedding rings. McKellen interprets this as Lear having two wives, one producing his two selfish children and the other producing his favourite, Cordelia. For anyone who has read the play, this makes astonishing sense.
Watching his 2017 talk at the Cambridge Union, it is hard not to hang on every word he says. He has the capability to switch between being extremely profound and insightful to light-hearted and humorous in an instant. A useful skill for any actor. Although on the surface he may seem like a serious theatre actor, he is also incredibly funny. Examples of this can be found in his appearance in George Ezra’s ‘Listen to the Man’ music video, his voiceover work in Flushed Away and his role as a conman in Coronation Street. Without a doubt McKellen demonstrates that he can do humour just as well as he can do drama.
Studying English Literature at Cambridge may have given him an understanding of the characters he would soon go on to portray. His one man show, Acting Shakespeare demonstrates his grasp of rhythm and lyricalness in the lines that he speaks. The theatre veteran is often seen in royal roles: Richard III, Hamlet and King Lear are prime examples. Stoic and oozing with dignity, McKellen has an undeniable regal quality about him. King Lear in particular, showcases his ability to command respect and awe and become a general a tour de force of power.
All these factors combine to create a man with every sign of a truly great entertainer. At 78 years old, Sir Ian McKellen continues to expand his incredible résumé and hopefully will keep on doing so for some time yet. He is a brilliant, intelligent actor with an obvious passion for what he does and more than deserves his name in the acting hall of fame.