Nobody knows William Shakespeare better than Sir Ian McKellen. The veteran actor has played all the leading roles, from Romeo and Hamlet to Macbeth and King Lear – so it is a shock to hear him declare that the way the plays are taught in many schools is wrong – and most of us should stop trying to read them.
‘Reading Shakespeare is almost as difficult as reading Mozart on the page [from the musical notes],’ says McKellen in that deep, warm voice familiar to millions around the world who may never have seen a play by the Bard in their lives.
McKellen is a genuine Hollywood superstar: Magneto in the X-Men movies and Gandalf in The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings – the long, pointy hat worn by the kindly wizard sits proudly on a hat stand just inside the door of his home by the river in east London, startling visitors.
He appears grand but McKellen is also playful and candid when he wants to be, and today we’ll talk about everything from his guest role in Coronation Street to what he shouted at best friend Sir Derek Jacobi – co-star of the highly camp sitcom Vicious – in a blazing row on holiday (‘Oh Derek! Don’t be so stupid!’).
He’ll reveal how alarming it is to be heckled when you’re trying to perform a play – as several West End stars have been recently – and why he wishes people would remember how to behave in the theatre (‘We want them to laugh, we want them to cry – what we don’t want them to do is start texting their mates or joining in…’).
This is a rare chance to glimpse the life of a man so private that he has just handed back a £1 million advance rather than finish writing his memoir. ‘I didn’t want to go back into my life and imagine things that I hadn’t understood so far,’ he said. ‘Frankly, if anybody wants to know anything about my public life, my working life, my career, it’s all catalogued in greater detail on my website than could ever be put into a book.’
We’re sitting out on the rooftop terrace of his home, on bright pink wooden chairs with rainbow cushions that I take to be a witty visual reference to his work as a gay rights campaigner.
The co-founder of the lobby group Stonewall did not come out publicly as gay until 1988, when he was 49 and so angry at the government of the day that he could no longer keep quiet. His parents were no longer alive, but his stepmother just said she had known for years.
The pink chairs are also a sign that he doesn’t take himself too seriously – as is Vicious, in which he and Sir Derek play an elderly gay couple, a pair of gossiping, bickering actors.
He was in a relationship with the director and actor Sean Mathias during the Seventies and Eighties, and they are now business partners who own the historic pub next door to his house, The Grapes, with the Russian newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev.
There’s no obvious sign that he is sharing his home with anyone: they might have warned him that his sweatpants are a bit saggy and his lilac T-shirt looks like it has been nibbled by moths. But he does have a gorgeous grey Ralph Lauren pashmina that he wraps tightly around himself like King Lear in the storm.
McKellen’s biggest passion is for William Shakespeare, and he is preparing to lead the celebrations that will mark 400 years since the playwright’s death in April 1616.
‘Much has changed in the past 400 years but human nature hasn’t really changed,’ he declares. ‘We’re all susceptible to falling in love and out of love, being jealous, envious, ambitious. So if you’re telling the story of Othello and Iago, say, then you’re telling the story of lives that are still current.’
Incredibly, though, McKellen wants us all to put down our books and stop trying to learn the plays before we’ve seen them. ‘It’s not what ordinary people should have to bother with. That’s for the actors to do. The plays weren’t written to be read, they were written to be spoken out loud and acted and for us as an audience to watch.’
Seeing a play first makes the words come alive, he insists. ‘If you see Shakespeare on stage, much of the difficulty goes. You may not understand every word but you get more than the gist, and long stretches of the plays are perfectly easy to understand.’
Too many of us are put off Shakespeare at school by having to stare at pages of blank verse wondering what it’s all about, he says. ‘It’s a great pity if people who are new to Shakespeare, whatever their age, have to read him. They should go and see him.’
McKellen has been performing on stage since his days at school in Wigan, Lancashire, in the Fifties – and he has won countless awards – but surprisingly, he still struggles with the scripts on the page.
‘I find it very difficult to read a play, even now. If I get a new one I have to hear it out loud before I can judge what it’s like.’
And he is no fan of teaching Shakespeare by the book – as is still the case in the majority of schools. ‘The idea of any children in their early teens with a teacher who has not quite worked out how to do this, so that it just comes down to reading and reading, perhaps speaking it out loud, maybe even standing up and acting out a little bit… it worries me that you might easily be put off Shakespeare for life if that’s how you start out.’
There’s a warmth about the way he says it that suggests he really does care. He’s been living at his east London home since the days when the Docklands were derelict and the houses were cheap, but now they are worth a fortune and so is he.
Not all of us can afford to go to the theatre, which is why he has worked with collaborators to come up with an astonishing new app for the iPad that brings the theatre to your lap.
It’s all very modern for a 76-year-old who is often described as our Greatest Living Shakespearean, though he laughs when I mention that people say such things.
‘Oh, do they? Perhaps they’re right!’ he says, looking away, a hand up fluttering at his face. But it’s not something I’m aiming for. I would not want to be someone who only did Shakespeare – there are many other delights.’
McKellen smiles then sucks on a cigarette, eyes hidden behind sunglasses like an elderly rock star. The big question people have been asking for years – and which is resurfacing as the anniversary approaches – is this: who exactly was Shakespeare, really?
McKellen’s old mate Sir Derek Jacobi is one of a growing number of actors, academics and experts who believe the plays were actually written by the Earl of Oxford, using a common player called Will Shakespeare as his frontman. Mark Rylance, the Oscar winner, is another who argues for this.
So is McKellen still clinging stubbornly to the traditional view that a man called William Shakespeare from a relatively humble background in Stratford-upon-Avon was the greatest genius in English literature? ‘Oh yes. I think so.’ He freely concedes that others might also have been involved.
‘It’s clear that Shakespeare wrote plays with other people, that’s in the nature of the job. Odd as it may sound, every episode of [the American sitcom] Will & Grace is written by 12 people. There are 20 people who write Coronation Street. I did ten episodes and each was written by a different author, but the audience couldn’t tell, they were brilliant at it.’
His friends believe Shakespeare was too poorly educated to have written the plays himself. ‘Does it matter? It’s evident to me that the man who wrote the plays loved the theatre. He thinks as an actor. One of Shakespeare’s greatest contributions to human thought is that “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”. Human beings act. Animals don’t act. We disguise ourselves, we pretend. That all seems to add up to being some professional who was well steeped in theatre and doing this as a full-time job.’
He may profess not to care too much but it mattered enough to cause a row with Jacobi, whose career has been equally stratospheric since they acted together as students. They still go away together.‘I did say to Derek, late at night, when we were on holiday together one time, “Come on Derek, just explain to me why you think what you do.”
‘He said, “No, I’m not going to. You’ll shout at me.”’McKellen purses his lips in the telling and makes this anecdote sound like an episode of Vicious. They argued about whether Shakespeare went to a grammar school and tempers flared, says McKellen, who acts out what he bellowed at his friend: ‘“Oh Derek! Don’t be so stupid!”’
The words echo across the water, startling a seagull. The actor looks sheepish. ‘I did exactly what he had told me I was going to do. We haven’t talked about it since.’
By the time he got to university, McKellen had seen half of Shakespeare’s plays and been in several of them. ‘My parents went to the theatre a lot – it was my main hobby as a child. I was never frightened of Shakespeare, bewildered or overwhelmed by him.’
His first encounter was at the Little Theatre in his home town of Wigan when his big sister took him to see Twelfth Night at the age of nine. ‘As she told me a bit of the story in advance, I didn’t have any difficulty.’
But it was at Cambridge that he first came across the challenge of a heckler in the audience and he was shocked. ‘The first time I walked on the stage as an undergraduate at the amateur dramatic club, some drunk who had just wandered into the theatre shouted, “Get off!” That was the first comment I ever heard from an audience.’
There were more annoying disturbances when he began to play the leading roles such as Romeo and Hamlet. ‘It can be very distracting if you’re playing Hamlet and there’s somebody on the front row with the script, not looking at you. Listening to you, following the text, turning the page and saying, “You’ve missed something out.” All actors will say you can start a famous speech and there will be someone in the audience saying the words at the same time.’
All this makes McKellen sympathetic to actors stopped in full flow, as Laurence Fox was recently when performing in London in The Patriotic Traitor. Fox swore at the man, raged against him and left the stage early, refusing to come back for the curtain call. McKellen sighs and wishes we would all behave.
‘The convention these days is that the audience should respect the situation, which is that we’re all going to sit here and watch and appreciate what is in front of us. Of course we do want an audience to laugh and make a noise. We want them to cry, if that suits the situation. What we don’t want is for them to start texting their mates about the play or joining in; that’s not appropriate.’
Benedict Cumberbatch pleaded with the audience coming to see him as Hamlet not to whip out their phones and start filming. But we’re paying for the tickets, so why shouldn’t we do as we please? ‘What’s bad is that it disrupts the actors and puts off the rest of the audience who are trying to have a personal relationship with the play. To disrupt that in any way – by getting up to go to the loo, by whispering to your beloved, by videoing it or shouting out – all those things are just bad manners.’
His movie Richard III – which was made in 1995 and has McKellen prowling around Battersea Power Station in a fascist uniform – will be shown live in cinemas around the country at the start of a month-long British Film Institute festival dedicated to depictions of Shakespeare’s work on screen.
Let’s be honest, though, for every fine Hamlet by Kenneth Branagh (due to be screened by the BFI) isn’t there a woeful one with Mel Gibson? ‘They are what they are: cinema. A film-maker is trying to make a good film, not good Shakespeare, though sometimes they do. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is spectacular and has a lot of Shakespeare in it. And a lot of other stuff as well.’
McKellen will host a bus tour of the locations used in Richard III before taking off around the world to talk about the Bard for the BFI and the British Council.
His last great Shakespearean role on stage was back with the RSC as King Lear in 2008. Does he get nervous? ‘You can’t start thinking, “I’ll never be as good as Gielgud.” Your contribution is yourself. Forget all the rest and respond to the text as if it is new, as if Shakespeare is about to come into the rehearsal room and say, “What the hell are you doing with my play?”’
McKellen prefers performing in small theatres because they are intimate. He believes in diversity but admits that theatre audiences are still predominantly white. Isn’t there a real danger that Shakespeare remains the preserve of rich, middle-class people who can afford up to £100 a time to see it? ‘Yes, and I think that’s addressed by making sure there are some, if not many, cheap tickets. It’s not ideal, I suppose. But it’s not got to the stage that opera has got to.’
He points to videos of past productions and cinema screenings of live productions as examples of ways in which Shakespeare has been made more accessible. And of course there are proper movies, although you’ve got to be careful with those, says McKellen. ‘A film can be useful but the text can be cut to the bone.’
All this has been weighing heavily on his mind, but McKellen has come up with his own remarkable – and potentially game-changing – solution to the problem of how to get more people to love Shakespeare. He has developed a new app for the iPad with Heuristic Media that takes the user into the rehearsal room for an intimate performance of the play.
Actors speak their parts directly to the camera, while the words scroll down at the same pace on the bottom half of the screen. The Tempest is the first to get this treatment, with Jacobi leading the cast, but there will be others. ‘Pat Stewart wants to do one. Morgan Freeman wants to do something. Stephen Fry… We want people who have done the plays.’
You click on the script for access to notes from the scholarly Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays, with explanations, definitions, essays and helpful videos, all graded according to whether you’re a beginner, a fan or an expert.
‘Everybody who uses the app says, “Oh, I see. Yes, this makes it easier.” This is the equivalent of getting a Mozart manuscript then seeing and hearing the orchestra play.’
McKellen is the son of an engineer from Wigan. He’d like to believe Shakespeare was the son of a glover from Stratford. But in the end it doesn’t matter much to him.
‘It wouldn’t make the plays any better for us to realise one day that Shakespeare was a woman,’ says McKellen, finishing with the flourish of a quote from Hamlet. ‘It would be interesting but the plays would remain. The play’s the thing!’
Heuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest App is out on April 23, £4.49