An Offstage Chat With Sir Ian

In a radical change of venue, Ian McKellen plays Shakespeare's tyrannical King Richard III as a military man in the 1930s. The production is drawing critical praise on its US tour, and Mr. McKellen, in an interview, talks about the role and aspects of his career.

OUT of the smoke steps a tall man in a long military coat with epaulets, peaked hat, and a grim briskness who says: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York...."

The words of Shakespeare's "Richard III" are familiar, but the concept is not. Ian McKellen's brilliant transformation of the evil king into a fascist 1930s politician is like a steel sword against the neck. Chilling.

As the play unfolds, he murders his way to power without a qualm and without remorse. A New York Times drama critic described the performance as "Mr. McKellen's frighteningly insidious portrayal of a Machiavellian politician."

Mr. McKellen and the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain opened their American tour of "Richard III" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in June to rave reviews. The show has just finished a successful run at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here. We had a conversation about his role as the evil genius Richard just before he and the production moved on to their next stop, the Ordway Music Theatre, St. Paul, Minn., (July 2l to Aug. 9).

He turns his slate blue eyes on me and says, "I'm always rather shocked when someone says to me after the performance `Well, weren't you evil in this?' Because although he [Richard III] does revel in his misdeeds and explains them to the audience ... he calls himself a villain from the outset, I think ... he's only got one aim in view, and that is the fulfillment of his ambition to be the most powerful man in the country.

"And heavens above, that is an ambition shared with at least two other men in this nation, and probably many more in every other country in the world. So it's not that outlandish a spirit that keeps him going. The fact that it's twisted, the fact that he does bad things does, yes, allow people to call him evil. But it doesn't particularly help me [when] I am playing the part, that I am going to be the most evil man that ever lived, otherwise, I might come on like a pantomime villain, and I don't think Ri chard III is that. I think he's much more complicated."

With a role that goes on for hours each night, is it possible to take off the role like a cloak each evening?

"You take it off like makeup, basically," he says. "There's often exhaustion of a physical nature, because it's a tiring part and a long part. I don't find it anywhere near as emotionally taxing as Macbeth, which is perhaps Shakespeare's mature version of this play. After all, Macbeth, like Richard III, is a soldier back from the wars who wants to become king. And does. He's also like Richard III - a man who can't sleep at night and has nightmares. And like Richard, in a much more developed sense, he's g ot a conscience that he's always measuring these actions against. But he kills his best friend and tries to kill his son, and he kills Lady Macduff and her children.... There's not much to choose between them. But that is a much weightier play and more involving and upsetting. And Richard III is much more like a pencil drawing than a full oil.

"And I wear the part very, very lightly, and it doesn't disturb me, but I'm sure if I were watching it I'd be as upset or angry or as appalled as anybody else is. The sort of emotions I have to hold onto in the play are hatred and a sense of disappointment and a sense of being rejected by everybody and being despised, and a pride in having conquered this appalling disability which he's gotten. There are those things, rather than being dragged down by evil forces."

McKellen's Richard III is far from the famous Laurence Olivier version of the king on film. McKellen's Richard is riddled with malice. In a clever turn of acting, he gives the audience hints of his physical disabilities but at the same time deftly covers them. He also camouflages his crimes with smiling eloquence so that even Lady Anne, whose husband he has just murdered, eventually succumbs to his proposal of marriage.

There is little trace of the military briskness and crispness of "Richard III" in McKellen offstage. He ambles into the interview, a tall man with a slow smile, who looks relaxed in a loose, dark blue linen shirt, lentil-colored trousers, and loafers which he wears intermittently through our talk in a hotel conference room.

Sir Ian (he was knighted in 1991) is considered one of the world's most celebrated actors. He won a Tony Award for his Broadway role as Mozart's arch-enemy Salieri in "Amadeus," a New York Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for his brilliant one-man show "Acting Shakespeare," and 14 major acting awards in Britain for his roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.

OF his knighthood, he says: "Oh, I was very pleased indeed. Again, as with the Tony, you try not to be overwhelmed by these things.... It doesn't mean I think in a different way, that I get paid more, or more respect or anything else...."

Thinking about the Tony, he hesitates for a moment. "I've got to be very careful of what I say, because I know in this country how important the Tony Award is. When I picked it up I told the audience that it had been the most wonderful year of my life, and that this Tony Award would be a marvelous souvenir for me to take home with me. About a week later my dresser got up the courage to say to me, `You should never have called the Tony Award a souvenir, as though you sort of assume it's something you got from Atlantic City and put with the clock on the mantelpiece.' Did the Tony change my life? I'm very glad to say it didn't. If I'd thought that that was going to be it, and that somehow all the problems of being an actor were solved by winning the Tony, I'd probably have been out of the business by now...."

He grew up in the north of England loving theater, but never daring to try acting until he attended Cambridge University. "I had thought I wasn't perhaps good enough at it.... I think I'm rather lucky - I can never forget how important theater is to the people who are watching it. And it's for them that I'm doing it, not for me."

Sir Ian, who has been playing Richard III around the world for the last two years, will put the villain to rest after performances in Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, ending in September.

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