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…’).