McKellen is relishing playing a tramp in the theatrical event of the year
Ian McKellen, veteran thespian, knight of the realm and periodically one of everybody’s two favourite long-haired, kindly wizards, looks a right mess. This could be because it’s 11am on a cold, sunny Brighton morning, and he’s just been dragged out of bed to come and speak to me in an hotel dining room. Or it could be because he’s on stage tonight, like every other night, and he’s playing a tramp.
A tramp? Is that fair? Oh God, who knows? As Vladimir says to Estragon, “Nothing is certain when you’re about.” For this is Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett’s play about, erm, something or other. In its close-of-millennium poll, the National Theatre declared it “the most significant English language play of the 20th century”. Whenever it is on, it seems bang on the zeitgeist. There has been the Prison Godot, the Apartheid Godot, the Sarajevo Godot and the Hurricane Katrina Godot. Right now, in this time of global uncertainty, the play feels particularly timely. But then, maybe it always does. Maybe it is always a time of global uncertainty. Maybe we are always waiting for Waiting for Godot. Sorry. I don’t mean to go on. Beckett just gets you like that.
McKellen plays Estragon or, as theatre types will only ever call him, Gogo, in the touring production from the director Sean Mathias. Alongside Patrick Stewart’s Vladimir (Didi, if you please), he sits on things, peers into his boots and bowler hat, falls over, and says “Let’s go” and “Why not?” quite a lot. Audiences are loving it. In conversation, he seems relieved by this.
“We’re the right age,” he says, through his ragged beard, and he rattles through the bits of the play that make this clear. “What age are you, 60, 70? How long have we been together all the time now? Fifty years. It does seem established that this has been going on for half a century.” In the original cast, he ponders, Gogo was played by Peter Woodthorpe, who was 24. “What?” he says, quite theatrically. “How did that come about? You’d think you’d cling to the
facts, because so much of the play is elus-
ive. So, yes. You’re seeing two old geezers.”
Mathias has directed McKellen in a diverse array of things (Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Widow Twanky in Aladdin). More pertinently, the two men were a couple for most of the 1980s. “We’ve known each other for ages,” McKellen says. “I love working with him. Indeed, I hope we love working together.”
The way he tells it, Mathias called up one day last year, out of the blue, told him that he was going to be the artistic director at the Haymarket in London (which he is) and just presented him with the idea that he should appear in Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart. “‘Absolutely perfect,’ I said, so he rang up Patrick. Sean has a lot of good ideas. He’s had others, but this was one of them.”
Suitably, for a play so notoriously hard to pin down, Mathias tells an entirely different story. “We’ve been planning it for years,” he says, when I call him later. “I’ve tried to do it twice before, both times with Ian in place.” Once, he says, would have been for television, but the Beckett estate said no. When he got the Haymarket gig, he called up McKellen and said: “Maybe this is the time.” Originally, he envisioned Gogo and Didi as McKellen and Judi Dench, reuniting the pair for the first time since their RSC production of Macbeth in 1978. The Beckett estate wasn’t having that, either.
Up close, McKellen doesn’t always talk like you’d expect him to. Sometimes he declaims, like a Shakespearean or that wizard, but more often he’s a pensive, inquisitive northerner, fond of asking himself rhetorical questions. On stage, Gogo seems to be a northerner, too. McKellen grew up in Lancashire, true enough, but I wonder if the lilt is currently unusually pronounced, and whether he’s still wearing bits of his character, along with his beard.
His Gogo is on the edge of Alzheimer’s. McKellen is as sharp as a Hobbit’s dagger, but they share a tinge of weary fretfulness. Mathias tells me that both of his actors have been finding the rehearsals for Godot hard-going. “It’s bloody difficult to learn,” the director says. “Scenes don’t come to an end. Every word is loaded. You don’t want to see people that mighty being so vulnerable. Actors are always vulnerable, of course, but this lot, it was like elderly parents. They were afraid. It was very hard. I’ve never seen Ian carry a script around so much. Patrick uses Post-it Notes. All over his mirror, if a word goes wrong.”
In conversation, you can see McKellen thinking about his sentences before he says them. He seems concerned, in an amused sort of way, at how he might come across. We talk about his pompous portrayal of himself in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, a man forever declaiming thoroughly banal things about acting. “I’d hope that’s not me,” he says. “It’s a version of me.” There are now plans for a sitcom, based on that character. Peter Hinton, with whom he appeared in King Lear, had the idea for a mockumentary, based in a drama school, with McKellen as the head.
“And I said, well, that doesn’t work,” twinkles McKellen, “because I don’t have a drama school. But we’re in luck, because my identical brother does.” Ever since, he’s been struggling to take himself seriously. “The trouble is,” he says, “it’s so close to home. I see myself interviewed for serious programmes, about acting Shakespeare, and I can’t be certain whether it’s me or this identical brother. Oh dear.”
The production of Godot certainly has its sitcom moments, with its slapstick and banter. “It can be understood on an almost light comedy level,” he says. “Although
we’ve been trying to not let the dark side of the play, as Sean calls it, escape us.” One night recently, friends in the audience remarked afterwards on how moved they were rather than how much they laughed. This, they felt backstage, was progress.
McKellen and Stewart play Gogo and Didi, essentially as old, damaged thespians. “They don’t live together,” he points out. “They meet once a day, in the evening, and when night comes, they separate. Godot seems to be an employer of some sort. He has the prospect of work. Well, any actor or washed-up comic knows about an agent, or somebody who they met in a pub, or something.” The text, true enough, is littered with theatrical references. The set is a ruined theatre. McKellen says he likes to think of Pozzo and Lucky (the other two characters in Godot) as a pair of old hams, who maybe live upstairs in an abandoned dressing room.
These two are played by Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup, respectively, both of whom McKellen considers very old friends. Touring, he feels, is where you find actors in their natural state. “Vagabonds!” he says. “The players are come hither!” They’re not having much fun off-stage yet, but maybe they will when they get into their stride. “Ronnie Pickup I’ve known for longer than almost anyone else working in the theatre,” he says. “We met as students in the North. He comes from Chester and I come from Bolton, and he was at RADA and I was at Cambridge. We had a mutual friend in Bolton. Fifty years on, we’re working together. It’s lovely.”
McKellen moved to Bolton as a child. He was born in Burnley in 1939, to a civil engineer and his wife. They took him to see Peter Pan when he was 3, and encouraged a love of the theatre thereafter. His mother died when he was 12, but the baton was taken up by his stepmother and his older sister. He was in plays at school, saw a lot of Shakespeare, and set off to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, at 18, intent on acting.
To the casual observer, it might seem as if his film career took a while. Actually, he has been making about a film a year since he started. “You just haven’t seen any of them,” he says, “and with good reason.”
Everything changed with Richard III (1995), in which he portrayed Shakespeare’s villain king as a sort of 1930s British Nazi. “I wrote the screenplay and helped to cast it and produce it and helped to raise money for it and was thoroughly involved in it,” he says. “ And that brought me to the attention of lots of people who might not have known about me otherwise.”
In particular, Bryan Singer, who cast him again as a Nazi in the film of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil (1998). “He’s just done Valkyrie,” notes McKellen. “He’s got a thing about Nazis, hasn’t he?” X-Men (2000), also directed by Singer, was the last time he teamed up with Patrick Stewart. For a while, this almost scuppered the role for which, so far, he is most likely to be remembered – that of Gandalf, in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. “I don’t know how I got it,” he says. “I think I was low down on a list that started with Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins. And then, having accepted, I had to turn it down, because of the dates.” In the end, Singer let him get to New Zealand in time. Fairly frequently, he’s taken for Dumbledore. “I was going along the South Bank the other day and there was a man all dressed with a pointy hat and a stick. One of these mannequins who don’t move until you give them money. I said, ‘Look! He’s Gandalf!’ Then I got close, and he wasn’t. He was Dumbledore. But I think I play the best wizard. The wizard from whom all other wizards stem.”
Hollywood, he says, “is miserable” for gay actors. “That’s to do with advertising and television. They don’t want to be associated with an openly gay performer because that might bring their product into disrepute in the Bible Belt. But here? And New York? Not at all. Not a problem.”
Often, he says, he’ll speak to young actors and mention that he’s gay, and they will be surprised. “How could that have passed them by?” he says, wide-eyed. “But there we go. It’s rather good, isn’t it?”
Professionally speaking, McKellen didn’t come out until the late 1980s, over Section 28, the Local Government amendment that prohibited the promotion of homosexuality in schools. Until then, he says, it had never really occurred to him that he ought to. “The press didn’t ask you,” he says. “It was all too easy for somebody to be in public life to be known to be gay and not talk about it.”
Gay politics had initially passed him by. “I didn’t notice the Stonewall riots,” says the man who was one of the founders of Stonewall, the gay rights group named in memory of the 1969 event. “Even when I did Bent, a play all about coming out, I said to the press, this is a play about human freedoms. Well, yeah, but …”
Section 28, he says, changed that. “If you had a nice easy life as I did, it wasn’t a problem. But I grew up very quickly when I realised that for an awful lot of people it was, terribly. And then I realised it was for myself. That I’d been repressing so much inside. The best thing I did was to come out.”
Almost overnight, he says, he seemed to become the de facto, acceptable spokesman for Britain’s gay community. He was even invited to meet the Home Secretary, Michael Howard. “Me,” he says, sounding puzzled. “I suppose they felt that I was an openly gay person who was respectable, whom they could talk to.” A few years ago, on Have I Got News For You, he told of visiting Howard, and getting a polite but thoroughly intransigent hearing. Afterwards, the Home Secretary asked if he would sign a book for his children. McKellen joked that he had agreed, and had then written “F*** off, I’m gay.” This, he now says, regretfully, was not true. “Actually, I tamely wrote ‘sorry to have missed you’. That was my sole contribution on that particular day. I didn’t persuade him to change his mind. It’s all very well, 20 years on, for him to say they got that wrong, but what happened as a result of that was that not only did I come out, thousands did. It provided a rallying point for lesbians and gays like myself who had thought that life was going to go on as it
Hollywood aside, he reckons, such things have hugely improved. He’s a fan of the teen drama Skins, and points out that nobody seems at all bothered, or interested, whether those actors are gay or straight. “Who wants to play James Bond?” he roars. “We’ve got a gay Gandalf. A gay Gogo.
We’ve got a gay Hamlet, a gay Macbeth, a gay Coriolanus, a gay Richard III. Well, no we haven’t, I played them all straight.”
A flash of the twin brother there, I think. But he’s an optimist, just like his Gogo. Maybe that’s why he’s been struggling with Mathias’s dark side, in the play. “Who is Godot?” he says. “Godot’s the future. Isn’t he? Don’t you wake up sometimes and think there’s something wonderful going to happen?”
Not really, I say, and admit that I tend to wake up with a sense of dread.
McKellen tells me he is appalled. Or maybe his twin brother does. Either way, on this, I think they’d agree.