Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 195
In the second part of our special extended interview with Sir Ian McKellen, he tells us about some of his most famous roles: playing Macbeth opposite Dame Judi Dench, King Richard III with a screenplay he co-wrote, and Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings films. McKellen is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Listen to Part 1.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published October 25, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Rob Double at London Broadcast and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, a second act of our conversation with Sir Ian McKellen. From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
In part one of our interview with Ian McKellen, he discussed playing Hamlet in his thirties… and then again in his eighties. If you missed part one, you can find it on our website, Folger.edu.
Now, in part two of our extended interview, McKellen talks about playing Macbeth opposite Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s 1979 production, and playing Iago in a 1990 production of Othello also directed by Nunn.
But possibly McKellen’s most famous Shakespearean role is that of Richard III. In the 1995 film version directed by Richard Loncraine, the action is set in the 1930s. Ian McKellen plays the title role as a delightfully self-aware villain.
[CLIP from King Richard III. Ian McKellen is King Richard III.]
Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.
What, I that killed her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of my hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I no friends to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks?
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
WIMTORE: McKellen co-wrote the screenplay for the film while touring in the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of Richard III.
Long before he became one of the most recognizable actors of his generation, McKellen studied at Cambridge alongside David Frost, Margaret Drabble, Trevor Nunn… and Derek Jacobi.
Here’s part two of Barbara Bogaev’s extended interview with Sir Ian McKellen
BARABA BOGAEV: And now we’re into the name-dropping part of the conversation: I talked to Derek Jacobi on this show about the issue of doing the big ones, like “To be or not to be.”
And he said that you can always hear from the stage… you can always hear this collective inhalation from everyone in the audience right before you start. Their expectation. Is that your experience too?
IAN MCKELLEN: Well, I think Hamlet productions are often arranged about taking the audience by surprise with that speech. One way to do it is to put it much earlier than where it’s normally placed. You see, Hamlet is a play that gets partly written by each production.
Yes, it used to bother me, but it doesn’t really. Because you can speak these speeches in such a way that people feel they haven’t quite heard it in that way before, and therefore will have a fresh response to it. But, you know, you also can see people sometimes mouthing the words with you.
BOGAEV: Do you like that? I think that would be very funny.
MCKELLEN: No, I don’t like that. My performances are always designed for people who haven’t seen the play before. It’s no help when a friend comes around, as they did to my first Hamlet, and said, “Congratulations, you’re our 73rd Hamlet.” I don’t think there’s any need to see Hamlet 73 times. But, there is a need to see it more than once.
You know, if someone says, “Oh, I won’t come see Hamlet because I’ve already seen another production.” It’s rather like saying, “No, I don’t need a towel. I’ve already got one.” Well, you can—Hamlet is, you know… it’s a play you might respond to in a different way as you get older. There are lots of people at different ages in the play and they’ve all got a point of view. And perhaps you become more sympathetic to the older characters as you get older.
BOGAEV: I think that’s true of all Shakespeare’s plays that you respond… Because you pay attention to different characters as you age, as you grow, or as you come at it from a different moment in your life.
MCKELLEN: If you start as a director by saying, “How can we make this play available to a bright 14-year-old who’s prepared to give us two or three hours of their precious time,” rather than saying, “Oh, everybody knows this play. How can we make it different?”… it won’t inhibit you. You’ll still get productions which vary and have a different emphasis and a different attitude, a different style, and that’s absolutely fine. But I think it should always be done with a new audience in mind.
BOGAEV: Derek Jacobi also said he was a terrible Macbeth because the play doesn’t give us any motivation for the murder of Duncan. Do you agree?
MCKELLEN: No, I didn’t find any problem with Macbeth eventually deciding to murder his boss. He’s urged to do it by the woman on whom he depends emotionally, who he loves. They’re the golden couple, and they’re just fatally ambitious.
The whole point, really, of Macbeth’s character is that from the word “Go,” he is indecisive. Not as a soldier; he’s yet another soldier in Shakespeare who is brilliant on the battlefield and useless in politics. Coriolanus would be another prime example. Richard II… Richard III is a wonderful soldier and dreadful politician.
Macbeth knows what he’s doing and has long discussions with the audience as to whether he should do it or not, and what would be the result if he did. He gears up, “screws his courage to the sticking place” as his wife instructs. And on her behalf and his own, he kills the king and immediately regrets it. And spends the rest of the play trying to believe that he did the right thing, but he knows he didn’t.
[CLIP from Macbeth. Ian McKellen is Macbeth, Judi Dench is Lady Macbeth.]
Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
LADY MACBETH: What do you mean?
Still it cried “Sleep no more!” to all the house.
“Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor
Shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.”
Who was it that thus cried? Why, worthy thane,
You do unbend your noble strength to think
So brainsickly of things.
MCKELLEN: The reason that our production was so good and remains so good, because it’s still available on a DVD recording, is that it was played in this very small theater. And, we didn’t interpret it, we presented it. The words in that play and the actions are so startling and terrific at times that an audience is swept up, particularly if you play in a small theater, close to the audience where they can see the blood on the murderers’ hands. And you play without an intermission, for two hours, as Macbeth and his wife descend into hell, really.
BOGAEV: This is reminding me of another thing that you said, that you learned while doing a different play, Lear: that developing a backstory isn’t helpful with Shakespeare. So many Shakespearean actors have told me that it is, for them. But besides the fact that this wasn’t a psychoanalytical age, when Shakespeare is writing, why doesn’t backstory work with Shakespeare?
MCKELLEN: Well, it does and it doesn’t. The first word in Richard III is, “now.” “Now is the winter of our discontent,” and Shakespeare plays are happening in front of your eyes, “now.” He has this technique where sometimes uses a chorus to tell you what’s been going on, but things have been going on and you’re in the middle. The play starts in the middle of life, “now.”
For an actor to worry too much about… how come at 80, he’s got three daughters? And could they have had the same mother, Queen Lear, and where is she? She’s never mentioned. Or, did he have two wives and did the second wife die in childbirth? And is Cordelia now of an age and looking like her mother when King Lear fell in love with her and married her?
Well, you can invent all this, but it won’t really advance what the audience sees in the story. He’s not interested in the mother or mothers. I used to wear two wedding rings, for the alert, but it doesn’t matter.
Now, it might matter to the actor. It might make it easier for the actor to remember the mother of Cordelia as he looks into the young girl’s eyes. But you can’t start explaining all that to the audience, and if Shakespeare wanted you to, he would’ve put in the scene, the speech, the reminiscence which would’ve made for that clarity, which sometimes we as an actors, we can feel we’re missing.
So you just have to say, “Now,” and get on.
BOGAEV: So you approach it like a fairytale, really?
MCKELLEN: Well, it is. And another way—yes, I think that it is. There are, and I’ve often said, “Once upon time,” and now we start.
If you’re playing King Lear, you think, “What sort of a king have I been? Have I been a good king? Well, my daughters seem to think that I wasn’t a very good king.” And the Fool is there to add criticism of Lear to the story. But reliable people, like the Earl of Kent, think King Lear is the bee’s knees and are utterly devoted to him. And Gloucester too. Two basically good men, absolutely devoted to the king. What was it that they were devoted to? Not this man who shouts at his daughters and makes foolish political mistakes in front of their eyes. Was he perhaps a great warrior king, or was he a priest king? He believes, initially anyway, in the power of the gods, who he’s always talking to and claiming to represent on earth. Divine right of kings.
But it doesn’t help to say, “I was a great warrior king,” because that’s not part of the story. But you do note that he hits people, a couple of times. He hits people. “Perhaps that’s because he hit them very successfully on the battlefield,” I used to think.
But again, you can make up these stories and they can help and boost your confidence as you’re trying to understand what’s going on, but better to concentrate on what is going on than what has gone on, I think.
BOGAEV: Well, picking up on your Richard, you started, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” that speech. You later adapted Richard III for the screen, after doing it on the stage. You set it in the 1930s, rise of fascism. And one of the all-time favorite—my favorite—beginnings of a Shakespeare screen adaptation, besides starting with a huge tank, pretty much coming through a wall…
[CLIP from King Richard III. Ian McKellen is King Richard III. The sounds of a tank breaking through a wall, shots firing, a man groans.]
BOGAEV: … in an attack, you do begin this famous soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” at a ball. You’re giving a speech.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York,
And all the clouds that loured upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths!
BOGAEV: And then you zoom the camera in on your Hitler stash, your mouth, as you say, “Grim-visaged war has smoothed his wrinkled front.” And then there’s a jump cut to you, taking a leak in a urinal in the bathroom as you finished the thought.
KING RICHARD III:
Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
[The sound changes. Richard’s speech no longer echoes through a ballroom. Instead, he mumbles.]
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
BOGAEV: It’s this wonderful progression. Could you tell me how you developed your staging?
MCKELLEN: Well, every Richard will tell you that the first speech is broken halfway through. It changes its direction. It begins as a public declaration to the audience. It’s a soliloquy; he’s on stage by himself.
We changed that and found it easier to deliver the speech to the audience of courtiers, rather than the audience through the lens. And halfway through what is clearly a public speech and a public face of the reasonable, enthusiastic younger brother of the new king—it’s only halfway through that he reveals his own ambitions to become king himself, and that’s much more private.
And, well, you can make that change in your point of view as you’re speaking it to a live audience in the theater, but changing the location to the most intimate place of all—well, if not the bedroom, then the bathroom—seemed to be just making Shakespeare’s case. That the first part is public and the second part is more intimate.
BOGAEV: You were doing this role on stage first, right? Were you working on writing the film adaptation pretty much at the same time? I mean, it seems as if you must have split yourself in two.
MCKELLEN: Well, I suppose we’d been playing the play on and off here and there through Europe and the United Kingdom. And we arrived in North America, which while we were there playing, I think six cities, that I tried to see if I could write a screenplay, which was basically cutting the text—not reimagining it, because Shakespeare is often cinematic in the way that one scene follows immediately from another. It’s almost as if he’d invented the jump cut. One scene ends and another begins immediately. That can happen very effectively on screen in a way that is difficult sometimes on stage.
Before that, I’m rather pleased you do see Richard completing the civil war by killing the current king, his enemy, and making way for Richard’s brother to become King. And after that, there was a party of celebration, which Richard eventually interrupts with his first speech. But I think you are seven minutes into the film before anyone has said a word.
MCKELLEN: I thought that was rather good because the one thing people must be frightened of when they go and see a Shakespeare film is, “Oh dear, there’s going to be a lot of stuff that I don’t understand.”
I hoped in this case, after seven minutes there, those very same people would be saying, “When is someone going to speak?” So that they were ready for the speech when it arrived.
And, as I say the first word of, it is “now.” And that could reassure the audience that they were in the right place; that something was going to happen. But, when I went in to kill the king wearing a gas mask, so that my face couldn’t be seen, I was breathing heavily, but my breathing was beating out the blank burst rhythm. So, the first thing out of Richard III’s mouth in our film is a demonstration of the blank first line.
BOGAEV: Well, I’m going to have to go back and listen to that.
BOGAEV: Your Richard is really antic. I mean, he’s kind of madcap and there’s this wonderful bright swing music that emphasizes this slightly lunatic mood. And then in the last shot, you have your Die Hard moment. Your evil Richard lets himself fall backwards from the top of a building into flames below. And you are smiling like a demon, or perhaps laughing. What was your thinking there?
MCKELLEN: Yes—and just to add to what you were saying, we filmed that in the Battersea Power Station, which was very close to the new American Embassy in London. It has recently been renovated now. And so it’s no longer a power station making electricity, but it’s housing for rich people. But, in its ruined state, we did the battle there and, not I, but someone looking like Richard, threw himself off. And, I heard recently, got paid more for doing that than I got paid for the entire film, and quite right.
BOGAEV: Quite right. He deserves it.
MCKELLEN: Well, I may have played Richard, but I wasn’t going to kill myself—risk killing myself.
As Richard is escaping from his nemesis, Richmond, the man who was going to kill him and become king himself, Henry VII. In the stage version, they fight and Richard loses.
In our version, they’re firing at each other, and Richard sees the inevitable and throws himself off, commits suicide. And, as he does that, Richmond, the future king, aims and fires pointlessly. Richard is definitely going to die, but Henry VII can then go down to his troops and say, “I killed the king.” And the audience will know that he didn’t.
And the audience will may therefore say, “Oh dear, I wonder what this new king is going to be like.” Just as at the end of Macbeth, you wonder, “Oh, dear, I wonder what this new King Malcolm is going to be like with all his problems.”
Richard Loncraine, the director, put underneath Richard, as he is grinning and falling to inevitable death. “I’m sitting on top of the world,” and I was worried about this and when—
BOGAEV: Why? Because it was maybe too much?
MCKELLEN: I thought, to come suddenly with a popular song from a different genre of storytelling and that I didn’t really know why Richard wanted to use it. I thought it put the wrong seal on the whole thing.
And Annette Bening’s husband, Warren Beatty, was attending filming, in the background. I talked to him about this, and he said, “But that’s Al Jolson. Al Jolson was the first man ever to be heard speaking in a movie. It was he who created talkies. And if Richard III is anything, it’s a talkie. You are paying tribute to the first performer ever to have a success in a speaking movie.”
So I took comfort from that.
BOGAEV: I think it’s a very smart comment. Whenever that man opens his mouth, something smart comes out.
You played this other great—one of my favorite great villains, Iago, in another Trevor Nunn production for the RSC, which was filmed. What I think is so remarkable about it is that in the very first scene, you establish absolutely who Iago is.
[CLIP from Othello, directed by Trevor Nunn. Ian McKellen is Iago.]
O, sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master’s ass,
For naught but provender, and when he’s old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves! Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them; and when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage. These fellows have some soul,
And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
BOGAEV: And to me, he seems to embody the idea of the banality of evil in your production. In other productions, I have such trouble figuring out, “Wait, exactly why is he so evil? Is he just, like, born that way?”
But in your Iago, he seems very low and very common. And you’ve chosen an accent for him. I’m not British, so I don’t know what it is, but who were you modeling him on and how—am I completely off-base?
MCKELLEN: No. The accent I was using is my native one, an all-purpose Northern Accent. I think the point was that Iago is a non-commissioned officer. He’s not one of the knobs, you know? He’s not been to the posh military academies. He’s worked his way up
MCKELLEN: He’s a working soldier.
BOGAEV: And he resents the people who have. There’s a lot of class going on, yeah.
MCKELLEN: Yes, yes there is. You could imagine a man like that, looking at this Black man who’s come in and is now his boss, feeling that he didn’t like that.
But Iago’s a very, very easy part to play and be successful. He is wicked. You said “evil;” I’m not sure what evil is, actually. I don’t think we’re born evil. I think we might grow up to do dreadful things. But evil, I don’t think is visited upon us. It just emerges. I don’t believe in the devil.
So, he tells the audience exactly what’s on his mind and exactly what he wants to do and why he wants to do it. He doesn’t like his boss because of the color of his skin. He’s jealous because he suspects that Othello has seduced Iago’s wife. He’s annoyed with Othello because he, Iago, was overlooked and what he thought was going to be his new promotion was given to another soldier.
He just reveals, not an evil man, but a man who’s very unhappy and more jealous than anybody else in the play. And, coping against the odds with a wife who he seems to be estranged from. They hardly speak to each other.
But when he’s not talking to the audience and telling the truth about himself, as everybody does in Shakespeare when they speak to the audience in the soliloquy—no character lies in the soliloquy. It’s in the rest of the play that Iago is lying. All you have to do in the rest of the play is play the nicest man possible.
“Thank you, Iago.” “Do you think so, Iago?” “Could you help me, Iago?” “I’ve got a problem, Iago.” “Please, Iago.” He’s the good old, reliable guy; the Northerner who will put his arm around you and sort it out and tell you not to worry and fulfill his destiny to be everyone’s friend. And then he turns to the audience and says, “They’re all fools.”
Well, the actor playing Iago who tries to tell the audience in his scenes with other people what his real feelings are is—will never get anywhere. You simply play a nice man and then when you are talking to the audience, you play an honest man and the honesty reveals his motives. No, I don’t think he’s evil. I think he’s just sick.
BOGAEV: Huh. Well, we’re almost out of time, so I have to ask you, Gandalf: is there a single question you haven’t been asked about your role as Gandalf? And is there any Shakespearean angle at all to explore? I mean, is there an element of Prospero embedded in Gandalf.
MCKELLEN: Ah, yes. Well, I’m sure, Tolkien is a very well-educated Englishman in the beginning of the last century, would know Shakespeare and have read him and have seen.
But, no, I think he invented his own sort of story turning, which predates Shakespeare. I think it goes back to the pre-Renaissance sagas, you know? Spoken around the fire, passed on from generation to generation about the history of the tribe. I think that that’s more where Tolkien’s style of writing comes from, rather than from the theatrical way in which Shakespeare tells his stories is.
But it was useful, I think, in playing Gandalf who has a very lively ability to take over a situation and provide the answers and encourage other people to follow him. Because in Shakespeare, often you have to stand up and rally the troops or lose your temper and make your case. Gandalf has to do that a number of times. And I felt, “Oh, I’ve done this before in other stories.” But otherwise, I didn’t really think of Shakespeare once whilst we were doing it.
BOGAEV: It has been so delightful talking with you and I’m so looking forward to seeing that Hamlet. Thank you.
MCKELLEN: Well, Barbara, thank you for very much. You must give my best wishes to everyone at the Folger. You know, one of the great institutions which is a joy to visit.
And I have appeared on that little stage. It was Shakespeare’s birthday, April the 23rd. I gave a half hour Shakespeare Entertainment, I hope. And was then led with everybody else over to the White House to listen to President Reagan give a speech in praise of the Folger Library and Shakespeare. He said—and it is very moving—holding up a copy of Shakespeare, he said, “If only we could really understand everything in this book, what a better place the world would be.”
Well, it wasn’t long after that that I saw a replay of Reagan on the campaign stump. And he was out, down in the southern states of the USA and he was holding up a book, this time it was the Bible. And he said, “You know, if only we could understand every word in this good book, what a better place the world would be.” Well, I suppose if you’ve got a good line, use it.
BOGAEV: Well, thank you so much. It’s been such a delight to talk with you.
MCKELLEN: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for your lovely questions and your interest. Very indulgent. Thank you.
BOGAEV: It was a joy.
WITMORE: Keep an eye out for release details of Sir Ian McKellen’s performances in the Theatre Royal Windsor’s production of Hamlet, as well as the essay-film Hamlet Within.
This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Rob Double at London Broadcast and Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.