I wouldn’t want to dismiss several generations of Shakespearean actors with a single statement, so let me see if I can phrase this just right: we’re getting to a point where it just doesn’t feel like there are as many greats as there used to be. That’s not to say that there aren’t greats, of course, but…well, surely you know what I mean. Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson…all are gone, and for all the talents that have arisen in the intervening years, few are quite as immediately associated with the Bard in the same way, where you hear their name and immediately say, “Oh, yes, of course, he’s the Shakespearean actor.”
With that said, however, it’s fair to say that Sir Ian McKellen falls into the category of those who, despite roles ranging from Gandalf and Magneto to James Whale and Kurt Dussander, is still very much recognized as a Shakespearean actor. Granted, the reputation is probably significantly greater in the UK, where he’s done television productions where he’s played the title roles in “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Richard III,” as well as Iago in “Othello,” but after his unique cinematic interpretation of “Richard III,” in which he co-starred with Robert Downey, Jr., and Annette Bening, even Americans began to associate him with Shakespeare.
As such, the idea of seeing McKellen appearing as King Lear in an upcoming “Great Performances” production is one that intrigues me considerably, particularly after experiencing his enthusiasm for the play firsthand.
“King Lear” has fascinated McKellen throughout his acting career, particularly because of the wide variety of ages amongst its characters. “As a young man, I was very intrigued by the part of Edgar, which I played,” he said. “And there are a lot of young people in ‘King Lear’ that a young audience could identify with, good and bad. Then there are a lot of good middle-aged characters. But what’s perhaps special about ‘King Lear,’ as opposed to a ‘Hamlet,’ is that the central part is for an old person. And so if, like me, you’ve worked your way through Shakespeare as an actor, you know, waiting up there is ‘King Lear’ and, beyond him, a shadowy Prospero, maybe and, oh, dear, a Falstaff too.
“I’ve been in the play twice before as Edgar and as Kent. I’d seen what it cost the person — the
actors playing King Lear: Brian Cox, on one occasion, giving his all a hundred percent every night and discovering in himself depths and heights that he hasn’t necessarily had to use in any other part. And the late Robert Addison played King Lear, when I played Edgar, in his mid-60s and frail at the end of the evening because the performance had taken so much out of him. So I suppose it’s the challenge. It’s the expectation that it will complete your journey through Shakespeare.”
With that said, however, McKellen admitted that he hadn’t actually been spending his career with a burning desire to play the role of King Lear.