US viewers get to see Ian McKellen sold-out show while benefitting their own theatre organisations

Finally US viewers get a chance to see Sir Ian McKellen’s “show of a lifetime”, as for a limited period it is available via TBD.

Universally praised, his 80th birthday tour covered the whole of the UK to audience approval. On the way, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds for theatres and charities, the show did a huge amount for causes dear to Sir Ian’s very big heart.

The great news about this release is that proceeds from this release benefit over 40 partner organizations including regional and community theatres and educational theatre programs across the US.

That the show comes highly recommended is a given. Viewers can find more details about how to get hold of this treasure chest of wit, anecdote and performance excellence at the TBD site here

Amazon Prime now brings you National Theatre Live shows

Fans of great British theatre with an Amazon Prime account now have even more reasons to tune into the streaming monolith.

Amazon Prime have made available four shows from National Theatre Live in a package entitled Great British Theatre, which is available free to Prime members.

You can enjoy these shows right now:

Ian McKellen On Stage – Filmed in the West End, at the culmination of a country-wide year-long tour, Sir Ian McKellen delights us with his recollections, stories and recreations of some of his favourite works.

Fleabag – Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show from 2019 is now available in all its scatty glory

Hamlet – Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance was praised in this 2015 production recorded at the Barbican Theatre.

Frankenstein – Danny Boyle’s big National Theatre hit of 2011 is available to watch in both versions – with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as the Doctor and the Creation.

All of these are currently available. If you have Amazon Prime, you can watch them anytime without further cost. If you’re not an Amazon Prime customer, you could always sign up for a free trial (I think they still do these, although the time length may have shortened), watch these shows, and cancel after the free trial ends. Did I say that? Surely not! You’ll know the right thing to do, dear readers!

Happy Viewing!

Time to Remember: Sir Ian McKellen at Oxford – an appreciation by Anthony Field

While our live theatre scene is gearing up, here is the next in a series which aims to fill the gap. It delves into the past to remind us of interesting and memorable events. In this month of LGBTQ+ PRIDE celebrations, this seemed a great time to feature SIR IAN McKELLEN, who is always worth our attention, so here he is. Enjoy!

Sir Ian McKellen. Photo courtesy of BBC website – uncredited.

Here’s an article from 1991, in which ANTHONY FIELD looks back at the Oxford University address given by Sir Ian McKellen, the second Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre, a role created through the generosity of Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

With his inaugural lecture at St Catherine’s College at Oxford University, Sir Ian McKellen launched his year as Professor of Contemporary Theatre. This follows on from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant attempt to establish the musical as an art form to be accepted by the Oxford academics as something to be seriously assessed. [This was covered in the first of this series, see here]

Larry Backmann’s introduction of Cameron Mackintosh to the University, magnificent and benevolent as it is, still needs some years to become acknowledged as a mature contribution to the academic development of Oxford. One could sense the Dons bristle as Sir Ian stood up in the packed-to-capacity hall without any visible notes. “He hasn’t prepared anything!” they nudged each other – only to be stunned and dazzled by a non-stop hour and a half performance which held his audience in the palm of his hand. I feel totally inadequate in having to describe properly the wonderful balance of intelligent insight and superb delivery that made the occasion unforgettable.

Professor McKellen started by questioning his title – “Contemporary to what?” – and suggested it meant “Modern Theatre”. He intended that he and a group of colleagues, including Martin Sherman (playwright) and Deborah Warner (director) should meet regularly and informally with graduates and undergraduates to deal with such questions as “Who runs the British theatre?” for which he is assembling “a distinguished panel of people who think they do- or would like to!”. He is shortly to appear as RICHARD III at the Apollo in Oxford, the Playhouse is soon to be re-opened and the Old Fire Station is to see productions of three of the musicals which emanated from the Stephen Sondheim year as Visiting Professor there. So Oxford will return to being a city to be reckoned with, theatre-wise.

“One could sense the Dons bristle as Sir Ian stood up in the packed-to-capacity hall without any visible notes”

Sir Ian’s lecture commenced with comments on his career at the other St Catherine’s College (at Cambridge!) following his early theatregoing days at the Grand, Bolton and the Opera House Manchester. He was sadly too late to see Donald Wolfit in person, nor Judy Garland, Richard Burton or George Formby….

His attempt to analyse the extraordinary British idiosyncratic taste for theatre was based on a choice of words – such as calling it a “House” – which felt like a place where a family comes together and have a perception expressed as “the magic of theatre”, being “stage-struck” or having “ a love of theatre”. He cited four important ingredients which have lead to theatre today: Pantomime, Pop Music, Music Hall and Repertory. It was noted that the early days of pop music – of Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent and Billy Fury – led to the less dull and more developed acts of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Queen and David Bowie, who began to use a plot-line, costumes, props, make up, lights and dry ice. Sadly the days of Music Hall have passed – when Professor McKellen saw Issy Bonn and the five Smith Brothers, the Western Brothers and Josef Locke – all using stage trickery to hold an audience and encourage them to laugh aloud, clap to express themselves and confirm that they are there and are a part of what is going on. He believes that his heart belongs to, and his spirit flows from, the old Grand Theatre in Bolton.

The Arts Council was the main instrument in getting rid of weekly repertory by requiring companies to rehearse for two, three or four weeks, and encouraging the building of such theatres as the Belgrade in Coventry, the first to be built after the 1939-45 war. He applauded the fact that Manchester now has the Library Theatre and the Forum Wythenshawe, the Palace and the Opera House and the most exciting building in the country at the Royal Exchange because the theatres define the city…they cry aloud what the community is really about as no other civic asset can do.

People are all acting every day, deciding what to wear, changing their vocabulary according to whether they are talking to their lover, their employer, or whoever, always showing different aspects of themselves. Professor McKellen considered there was no real professional theatre in Italy where everyone is an actor (and therefore they needed the increased theatricality of opera or church ceremonies) whereas the British don’t emote except when on stage….thus we have an extensive amateur movement. He worried that the National Youth Theatre was a most important company which did not receive subsidy from a local authority because it was “national”, nor from the Department of Education because it was not educational, nor from the Arts Council because it was amateur. Similarly, the company Gay Sweatshop after 15 years’ work is considered an important company and everyone wants it to remain in being, but subsidy had been withdrawn from it. The failure in these cases was the failure of bureaucrats and the incompetence of politicians to find a way of supporting these companies and is not a failure of these companies or the theatre in general.

Further, McKellen remembered his work at the Belgrade Coventry where a company of fifteen people were engaged for a year and learned to work together on different plays with different acting styles, how to learn lines and to pace themselves, how to time a laugh and keep an audience’s attention, how to develop a performance through a run and learn self-confidence on stage. The last is most important in finding how to stop the knees wobbling when one opens one’s heart to reveal one’s emotions. It is impossible to emphasise how much actors need support – a first reading of a new play by experienced actors can be like a “convention of dyslexics” – which is why actors call each other “darling”, “love”, and kiss and cuddle and stick together for the essential support they need. Sir Ian reckoned it took him ten years in repertory to go into any rehearsal and dare….

Regional theatre has to be strong, Sir Ian went on. It is no use saving the National Theatre or the RSC for one further year if the Liverpool Playhouse has to shut. Remove one brick from the edifice and the wind whistles through and starts to bring the building down. In many regional theatres there are no productions of Shakespeare, having been replaced by Alan Ayckbourn; not because he is better but because he is cheaper. Also, the great classics – our dramatic heritage – have been excluded in favour of lighter shows. Soon there will be no ensembles left where actors can hone their craft.

The accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand had been charged with investigations into arts subsidies in order to find economies. Whereas they normally find a 20% wastage in commercial and industrial companies, they could find no conceivable cuts in National theatre departments of more than 8%. No doubt this is because those working int the theatre meet their customers every night of the week.

Finally, McKellen reminded us that in the theatre, excitement begins in the stomach – not the head or the heart – both for the audiences and the actors. It flowed up through the chest and out through the mouth as the actor’s voice and was expressed by the audience in laughter and cheers. He deplored the use of microphones and considered live theatre did not have the deadening effect of the art forms of cinema, television and radio in which players could not react to live audiences. He emphasised that politicians really worried about subsidy for the arts because the arts impinge on people’s minds – the first things a dictator closes are the airports, the news services and the theatres.

In a dazzling epilogue Sir Ian reminded us that in the beginning was the word – Shakespeare invented modern theatre, not Chekhov or Brecht – he invented the soliloquy (like the aria in an opera or the song in a musical) which in Sir Ian’s hands at the conclusion of his address moved joyously and to great acclaim from HAMLET to COMPANY.

To be, or not to be: That is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep;

No more; Somebody hold me too close;

Somebody hurt me too deep;

Somebody sit in my chair

And ruin my sleep and make me aware

Of being alive. But alone is alone.

Not alive.

Being alive.

Being alive.

Being alive.

Article published by kind permission of the Estate of Anthony Field

Women and musicals triumph at 2020 Olivier Awards

The awards ceremony staged at the London Palladium on Sunday October 25th was a very different affair to its predecessors. Stripped of an audience, the interplay reminded us of what we – and every theatre up and down the country – were missing; the excitement of being there in the room, together.

Awards-wise musicals DEAR EVAN HANSEN and & JULIET scored three awards each, with HANSEN picking up Best Actor for Sam Tutty, Best Musical and Best Original Score, while & JULIET scooped for Miriam Teak-Lee as Best Actress, Cassidy Janson as Best Supporting Actress and David Bedella as Best Supporting Actor. MARY POPPINS took two awards (for Stephen Mear and Sir Matthew Bourne as Best Choreographers, and for Bob Crowley winning Best Set Design).

PRESENT LAUGHTER won Best Actor for Andrew Scott and Best Supporting Actress for Indira Varma, and DEATH OF A SALESMAN interestingly won Best Actress for Sharon D Clarke (who is the first person to be nominated in all four performing categories and won in three of them) and Best Director for Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell.

In a further significant tribute to female creative talent, EMILIA’s all female team scored three wins Best Entertainment for writer Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, with Joanna Scotcher winning Best Costume Design and Emma Laxton winning for Best Sound Design. Paule Constable won her fifth Olivier for the lighting design for National Theatre’s production of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, and Emma Reeves and Theresa Heskins collected the new award for Best Family Show for The Worst Witch. Outstanding Achievement in Dance was won (from an all-female shortlist) by Sara Baras for her choreography and performance in BALLET FLAMENCO – SOMBRAS at Sadlers Wells.

Personally I was disappointed to see that the wonderful AMELIE did not win any of its three nominated categories (Best Actress for Audrey Brisson, Best Original Score and Best Musical).

It was heartwarming, though, to see Sir Ian McKellen receive his seventh Olivier Award, this time for his 80th birthday tour of UK theatres which also raised substantial funds for the theatres themselves. Can you imagine how much MORE desperate theatres’ plights would have been without this cash injection just before the pandemic!!! We all have a lot for which to be grateful to Sir Ian. From him came the most memorable line of the evening, “A country which cares about its live theatre is a healthy country”.

Yet again the IN MEMORIAM section was badly flawed, notable omissions from this most important roll call (four seconds each on screen, not much for a complete life, eh? Reduced from six seconds a couple of years ago. (In another decade they’ll just send out an email…..)) this year are Bob West and David Grant, two of this country’s most successful and important Company Managers who have kept many a show sailing smoothly over the decades, and allowed producers to sleep easily in their beds at night.

Anyone with insomnia wishing to see the ceremony can do so when it is (seemingly grudgingly) broadcast on ITV on Tuesday 27th October at 11.15pm. Alternatively, you can watch the programme (according to availability in countries outside the UK) on ITVHub on the link below.

So, another awards ceremony over. It seems unlikely we shall see the Olivier Awards again until 2022, which may mean that the competition is even fiercer than usual. Only time will tell. For now, let’s send our congratulations to the winners and all the nominees!