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Ian McKellen interview: 'This isn't a farewell tour — I'm saying hello again'

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 09/11/2018 NICK CURTIS
Ian McKellen wearing a suit and tie © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited

It is, I tell Sir Ian McKellen, a lovely idea. Our greatest living stage actor, the star of the X-Men and Lord of the Rings film franchises, and a pioneering campaigner for gay rights since he came out in 1988, turns 80 next year.

He will celebrate by touring a one-man show, Ian McKellen on Stage, to 80 venues across London and the country, donating his fee and the profits to charitable ventures or restoration projects at the venues he visits. “It’s not a farewell tour,” he growls. “It’s more like ‘Oh, hello again!’. There’ll be some Shakespeare, a bit of Tolkien and a certain amount of gay stuff — poetry and memories of battling to change the law. The show will have a format, so it won’t collapse, but if someone says, ‘Tell us a story about Judi Dench’, I suppose I’ll be obliged…” Audience members will get a chance to act with him on stage at the end.

We have met in his dressing room at the Duke of York’s theatre shortly before the run of his remarkable King Lear comes to an end. Fresh from a Pilates class, McKellen looks worn but fit. “I remember my grandfather being 80, and being very excited and amazed that anyone could have lived that long,” he recalls. “And as I’m still capable of moving and thinking and feeling, I thought I’d like to do something to celebrate it.”

He didn’t want a party — “actors are spoiled with cards and presents” — and he had already rejected the idea of an autobiography. But having seen touring productions featuring the likes of John Gielgud when he was a boy in Lancashire in the 1940s and 1950s, and having later loved touring with Prospect, The Actors’ Company, the RSC and the National Theatre, a different idea took shape.

He will visit theatres that have significance for him: the Wigan Little Theatre, where he first saw Shakespeare; Cambridge Arts Theatre, where as an undergraduate he decided he wanted to act; Bolton Town Hall, which he will visit on his actual birthday. “I’m going to Northern Ireland, where my family originally comes from, to Hull, Norwich, Oxford, Wales, Scotland,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see what the state of the nation is.” But the whole enterprise kicks off with a mini-tour of London, also “a very sentimental journey for me”. The first date will be at The Space, the converted chapel in Millwall, of which he is a patron, and the closest theatre to his Limehouse home.

He’ll also be visiting the Arts Theatre, where he acted opposite Margaret Drabble as a student, the Duke of York’s again and The Old Vic, where he joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company in 1965. He’ll go to other sites of past triumphs such as the current National Theatre, and Hampstead, plus places he has never been before, such as Above the Stag, “a new — well, new to me — LGBT theatre in Vauxhall, which is absolutely charming”.

The idea is that anyone who wants to see him should be able to stroll to their local venue rather than make a special trip, as long as they book. “It’s ‘coming to a theatre near you – but mostly for one night only’,” he says. He likens it to the old days of music-hall artists flitting from booking to booking, and seems unworried by the rigours of touring: he turned up to play Lear each night on the back of a motorcycle taxi.

“A good part of the show will be particular to the place I am in, me remembering things and answering questions,” he says. “I think it’ll be quite emotional, and it’ll keep me on my toes.” When he has done solo shows in the past, he’s sometimes asked the audience if they would prefer a monologue from Hamlet or Richard III, and it seems his memory is in good order. “I can remember an awful lot of Richard II, which I’ve not played since 1969.” Although he talks about “getting Gandalf out of the way early on” in the show, he remains grateful to the late fame that Peter Jackson’s films brought him in his 60s. “A lot of people who came to see King Lear were drawn by Tolkien rather than Shakespeare, I suspect,” he says, “and it’s nice to have some cred with young people.”

He can’t promise “a guest star every night” in the solo show but if his close friends and fellow knights Derek Jacobi or Patrick Stewart happen to come along to a performance, it’ll doubtless prompt anecdotes. “I’ve known Derek since 1959, so 60 years, and I was best man at his wedding the other day, when he married [his long-term partner] Richard Clifford,” McKellen recalls. His “bromance” with Stewart flowered out of their 2008 production of Waiting for Godot, and McKellen became an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church to officiate at Stewart’s 2013 wedding to singer Sunny Ozell. “Derek and I and Patrick are all the same person, really,” McKellen says. “We’ve all played the same parts. And all of us were at New York Pride when we were Grand Marshals a couple of years ago, so our private and public lives have overlapped a bit.”

During our conversation, McKellen makes occasional mention of the possibility of his body or his mind failing in a way that might prevent him carrying on working, which is perhaps not surprising. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 12 and his father — a civil engineer who came from a long line of lay preachers — when he was 24. His older sister Jean pre-deceased him years ago, and though he does not name them, many actors of his generation are ailing: Judi Dench is suffering macular degeneration; Michael Gambon cannot remember lines. Last year, McKellen had a lift installed in his Thames-side home. “That’s insurance so I don’t have to leave my house when the knees give way,” he says. His former partner Sean Matthias directs the tour for him but he lives alone.

But while his hangdog face might seem made for morbidity, I’ve always been struck by McKellen’s sense of fun. I first met him when he had realised a long-held ambition to appear in Coronation Street and was relishing the chance to do his first panto — as Widow Twankey. I know (non-famous) people who know him and speak of his kindness.

He and Stewart always seem to be having a laugh when they are together, as did he and Jacobi when they made the TV series Vicious, about two elderly gay actor flatmates. He grumbles about The Grapes, the pub he co-owns with the Evening Standard’s owner Evgeny Lebedev — “It’s a pain because you don’t make money out of pubs, and the building is constantly needing attention” – but clearly loves it. “No one should come in hoping to meet Gandalf, though,” he cautions, “he’s very quiet these days.” He’s also looking forward to the Evening Standard Theatre Awards next Sunday, where he is up for Best Actor, in partnership with Ambassador Theatre Group for his Lear. He jokes that he will spend the tour grumbling about not winning.

As he prepares to enter his ninth decade, McKellen admits there are personal regrets but insists there are no professional ones. “I suppose 30 years ago I’d have said, ‘Yes, I wanted to be in films’, but then it all happened. I’ve never been in a Simon Stephens play or a Martin McDonagh play, one of those groundbreaking plays by new playwrights. There are things I have missed out doing for one reason or another, but I’m not getting to the end of my life saying ‘Oh, I never did such and such’. I’ve never done a musical. Is that a regret?” Then memory strikes him. “I’m about to do Cats,” he beams, “the musical of Cats on film. So there we are…”

Ian McKellen on Stage begins on Jan 25. For full details see ianonstage.co.uk

The winners of the 64th Evening Standard Theatre Awards will be announced on November 18. For the full shortlist go to: standard.co.uk/theatreawards

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