McKellen: Playing The Part

Fruity, theatrical documentaries are all the rage right now. Following Nothing Like a Dame comes this fireside chat with Sir Ian McKellen, the great Gandalf himself plonked in a big red club chair, all snuggly in a cardigan and twinkling away about his life on the stage, in film and as a gay spokesman.

There’s barely a dull second, such is the mellifluity of memory and the expert timing of moistening eye.

Director Joe Stephenson has had a go at some dramatic black and white reconstructions of scenes for which no archive footage or photography exists, such as McKellen’s memories of performing for his family, or his entrance interview for Cambridge, where a Henry V speech got him a scholarship.

It’s the theatre that triumphs, as one knew it would; his gratefulness at finding a sense of belonging and kinship with the troupe shines through, the dressing up, the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

McKellen doesn’t burst with anecdotes the way Judi Dench or Maggie Smith do and his attempts at backstage funnies actually fall a bit flat, though he seems throatily amused by them. “Outrageous,” he bellows recalling one rather tame bit of last night Dench japery.

Despite his star status as our leading stage actor, his commitment to regional theatre in the 80s is laudable. He professes a distaste for the circus of the West End and he recalls being at the West Yorkshire Playhouse when his Oscar nomination came through, for playing James Whale in Gods and Monsters in 1999. He’s disproportionately gooey over the Broadway reception he received for Amadeus in 1981, and most proud of the Tony he won for that.

It’s his wrestles with sexual identity that are, ultimately, most affecting, the description of his relief at  coming out at the age of 49, quite beautiful. His activism against Section 28 and the subsequent work he did founding Stonewall probably do outweigh his legacy as an actor and so joyous does he look when advocating that it may well have been his greatest part.

I’ve worked with McKellen and can confirm he’s a wonderful teacher and an impish interpreter of Shakespeare. I saw his one-man-show Acting Shakespeare back in the mid-80s and can still cite it as one of the most influential evenings of my life, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

Of his films, Richard III is still probably his best, though I did love Gandalf amid all that Hobbity nonsense, and Gods and Monsters is undoubtedly fine work.

Playing the Part is lovely to watch, handsomely and affectionately assembled, gently camp and vaguely inspirational. And, like all good actors, McKellen leaves you knowing there’s a lot more behind the mask.