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


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