Ian McKellen gave his first performance as Hamlet on Christmas Day, 1948. He was nine years old – so still some way off becoming a knight of the realm and a national treasure – and the venue was a toy Victorian theatre he’d received that morning.
“You cut out all the parts and glued them together, then you attached little lights to it, and pushed the curtain up and down with wires,” he recalls. “If you masked yourself by putting a tea-towel over a clothes horse, you could put on a show. So I did a shortened version of Hamlet. Can you imagine my poor old parents, having to watch that on Christmas Day…?” He chuckles at the memory.
His cardboard cast that day had been modelled on Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. What would the nine-year-old Ian McKellen have made, does he think, of the idea he would one day be spoken of alongside Olivier as one of Britain’s greatest Shakespearean actors? “Er, well, I think he would have scratched his little head,” he says. “If I’d ever dreamed I was going to be active in the theatre at all, it would probably have been as an amateur actor.”
McKellen is at home in East London, talking over Zoom while eating his morning muesli (“It’s Waitrose,” he assures us). The occasion for our breakfast meeting is twofold: he’s helping Weekend launch our Pride Month celebrations – more on that later – while also talking up his forthcoming return to Hamlet, more than 70 years after that festive debut.
This time, he’ll be sharing the title role with dancer Johan Christiansen, in a new adaptation from Olivier Award-winning choreographer Peter Schaufuss, set to receive its world premiere during this summer’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
It’s McKellen first ever ballet, in a six-decade stage and screen career that has taken the now 83-year-old from Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre to Hollywood, via Stratford, the Old Vic, Broadway and Middle Earth.
“That’s my main motivation for doing it – to see how a ballet is put together,” he admits. “Also, there is, in the middle of the play, another play. It’s Hamlet’s way of tricking his uncle into revealing his guilt, about having killed Hamlet’s father. But before that play takes place, the actors who’ve arrived in Elsinore do a dance. And this dance is written down by Shakespeare – it says exactly what they should do. So you could say that Shakespeare put, in the middle of Hamlet, a ballet. That makes me think that this isn’t such a stupid idea.”
It’s not the first time McKellen has taken Hamlet to Edinburgh: he first played the Dane there in 1971, but doesn’t think he made a very good job of it. “And I wasn’t the only who thought so,” he laughs. After that, it would be another half a century before he reprised the role, in an age, colour and gender-blind production at Windsor Theatre Royal last summer.
Hamlet, of course, is traditionally a young man’s role – so why does he think he played it more convincingly at 82 than at 32? “When I was a lad, I used to work hard on trying to understand everything about a character that was in the lines and under the lines,” he explains. “Then my acting would be making sure everyone in the audience got the message. So I was running alongside the character, almost giving a little review of this man. And we were playing large theatres, where you can be betrayed into a bit of over-acting. But last time around, I was able to land on the words, and not try to elaborate on them with more information.
“The idea that an old man could play a young man was perhaps not any more surprising than the idea a woman could play a man’s part, or vice versa,” he reflects. “There was the curiosity of trying to feel young. I didn’t expect to look young. I didn’t try to disguise my age. And I’m told that, within a couple of minutes, the audience just accepted it.”
It helps, he adds, that he still feels young at heart himself – “as people my age often do”. And yet he’s also acutely conscious that virtually all his fellow cast members from that 1971 production of Hamlet are now gone. “I’m well past the age when people start dying,” he says, matter-of-factly. “But I don’t find it depressing talking about death. I think about it every day of my life. At my age, you can’t avoid it. When you’re younger and someone dies, it’s a big, shattering event. But now it’s more like people have gone on a long holiday.”
The first big shattering event of the young Ian McKellen’s life occurred when, aged 12, he lost his mother Margery to breast cancer. “I wish I’d know her as an adult, rather than as a little boy – to whom she was very loving,” he says. “I have increasing regrets that I couldn’t ask my parents about their lives. [His father Denis, a civil engineer and lay preacher, died just 12 years later in a car crash, three weeks after watching his son make his West End acting debut.] I didn’t have a family, really, once I’d left home.”
Could that be one of the reasons he was drawn to acting companies – as a surrogate family? “I think that’s pretty self-evident,” he nods. “The way I functioned as a child was very much as part of a family. I wasn’t a loner – though I might have been alone in my thoughts, and my growing awareness of my sexuality, about which I didn’t talk to my family.”
Growing up in the Lancashire mill towns of Wigan and Bolton, McKellen loved the theatre. But it was only after winning a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he performed in undergraduate shows alongside the likes of Derek Jacobi and Miriam Margolyes, that he saw the possibility of doing it professionally.
After a stint in rep in Coventry, he rose through the ranks of the National Theatre and the RSC to establish himself as one of the leading stage actors of his generation, triumphing in everything from Macbeth, opposite Judi Dench (he’s played seven of Shakespeare’s kings), to his Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway transfer of Amadeus.
Then, aged 60 – a full two decades after being knighted by the Queen for services to the performing arts – he suddenly found himself a global superstar thanks to his role as Magneto, the mutant antagonist of the X-Men films, before gaining even greater immortality as the wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s all-conquering The Lord of the Rings.
I was brought up in an age, pre-Beatles, when you didn’t expect to be world famous and celebrated shortly after your 21st birthday.Ian McKellen
“I’d always wanted to be in films,” admits McKellen, whose movie career only really started to gather momentum after 1995’s Richard III (for which he also wrote the screenplay). “But as I’d seen Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates all having successful film careers, I’d sort of given up. Then out of the blue, there was this invitation to go to Middle Earth.”
The success of The Lord of the Rings was “utterly life-changing”, he says. “But at 60, I think I was able handle that fame much better than I could if it had occurred decades earlier.
“Growing up, I don’t remember actors arriving on the scene, suddenly famous. The actors I saw in repertory theatre, they had a job, in the same way my dad did. So I’ve always thought of professional acting as a career, something that goes on. It doesn’t all depend on the first night. There’s plenty of time.
“I was brought up with the idea there was a prime of life,” he adds, “when the mortgage was beginning to be paid off, the kids were growing up, you were earning a decent wage, things were beginning to ease off. This was also pre-Beatles, when you didn’t expect to be world famous and celebrated shortly after your 21st birthday. So my career went along, and it’s been amazing. I’ve never been out of work – until, actually, the last few months. That was the first time in my life I hadn’t known what the next job was going to be.”
Unlike, say, Sir Alec Guinness – who famously hated playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – McKellen doesn’t view movie blockbusters as a lower art form than the theatre. That much is clear when he lifts his sleeve and proudly shows Weekend the tattoo – the word ‘nine’ in JRR Tolkien’s fictional Elvish language – that the members of the Fellowship of the Ring had inked as a permanent reminder of their movie-making adventures in New Zealand.
“I mean, to be fair, Gandalf is a much better part than Obi-Wan Kenobi,” he smiles. “And the storytelling [in The Lord of the Rings] is very classical, you just get carried along with it. Like some great big ship, we sail through people’s imaginations. But I wasn’t the captain – Peter Jackson was the captain. I was just on board doing my job.”
This month, McKellen will be celebrating another important fellowship during Pride Month. “Talking about families, as we were, the big family – the tribe – I belong to, is gay people, all over the world,” he says. “And when I go to Pride parades, that’s what I’m reminded of: people all bonding together and bearing witness. Rather like the walks I used to see in Wigan as a child, when the Protestants walked on Easter Saturday and the Catholics did the same route, with different banners, on Whit Monday.
“Bearing witness, being with friends, being with believers, being with other gay people, with all the people watching and cheering us on… It just feels very good. It’s very life-affirming, and I think that’s why it will go on being important,” he says. “It’s a healthy expression of people’s need to feel part of a tribe. Of course, on occasions you may be marching with indignation and anger. But fortunately, the aims of the gay activists have rather been achieved, in terms of equality under the law. So Pride tends to be a celebration, rather than a political march. But it can be both.”
That equality was hard-won by McKellen’s generation, who were forced to live secret, closeted lives in an age when homosexuality was still illegal (as he notes, “the word gay hadn’t yet been invented”). A longstanding activist for LGBT rights – he is a co-founder of the campaign group Stonewall, makes regular school visits, and famously came out as gay live on Radio 3 while arguing against the Thatcher government’s controversial Section 28 legislation – McKellen and his comrades are proud to have fought the battles that allow today’s young gay people to live the lives they never could.
“I think I’d have felt very differently about myself and the world if it had been as open and free and supportive as it can be today,” he says. “But of course, there will be many young people coming out to their parents, even now, who are met with a barrier of disapproval, which can take many forms – including throwing the kid out of the family home. That still goes on.
“And that’s another reason why Pride is important,” he says. “There are gays around, they’ve always been around, and they’re not going to go anywhere. There’s a message you see on t-shirts, which I love: ‘Some people are gay – get over it’.”
McKellen has previously said that, as he’s got older, he’s started to treat every job as his last. But not his latest Hamlet, because he’s “pretty sure what the next job’s going to be after that.
“When I did King Lear [at Chichester in 2017], I said, ‘that’s it, I’m never doing Shakespeare again’. Well that’s ridiculous – a couple of years later, I’m back playing Hamlet. But I do still remind myself to enjoy each job, in case it’s the last one. I still want there to be some fizz and excitement to it. Because that’s what it’s always been about for me.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen [in the future]. And I think I can enjoy my life without working. But I enjoy it even more when I am.”
Ian McKellen stars in Hamlet, Ashton Hall, Saint Stephens Theatre, Edinburgh, 2-28 August.
ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…
McKellen was born in Burnley, Lancashire, four months before the outbreak of the Second World War. It wasn’t until the conflict ended six years later, he says, that he realised “war wasn’t normal”. He was introduced to the theatre by his beloved older sister Jean, who remained a stalwart of her local village players until her death in 2003.
In 2005, McKellen fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing conman Mel Hutchwright in Coronation Street. He has also hosted America’s Saturday Night Live, and appeared as himself in The Simpsons.
This summer’s production of Hamlet will launch Edinburgh’s new 400-seat Ashton Hall performance venue. Joined on stage by members of the Edinburgh Festival Ballet, McKellen will be delivering Hamlet’s famous speeches and soliloquies – though presumably he won’t be giving us a twirl himself? “Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I’ll find out when we start rehearsals. That’s part of the fun…”
An edited version of this article appeared in Waitrose Weekend, June 2, 2022 (c) Waitrose Weekend