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‘Shakespeare is a bit like climbing Mt Everest’

Bowled over by the Bard:British actor Ian McKellen, who is in Mumbai to promote Shakespeare on Film. — Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

“If only you were the lone journalist in Mumbai,” he said, in good humour, when we cribbed about the meagre time allotted to us for the interview. But renowned English actor Sir Ian McKellen — whose repertoire stretches from stage to screen, from Shakespeare to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series, and Magneto of the X Men franchise — did give us a lot to chew on when it comes to the Bard in our 9.47-minute-long exclusive chat.

McKellen is in Mumbai to promote Shakespeare on Film , a collaborative project by the British Film Institute (BFI) and the British Council, which is part of the global Shakespeare Lives in 2016 programme that presents 18 key British Shakespeare films in 110 countries. A key title in this international touring programme is Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), which McKellen co-adapted with Loncraine. Other key titles in the programme include Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979), Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1979) and the BFI’s Play On! Shakespeare, in the Silent Cinema compilation. There was lots else to talk to him about — his involvement with LGBTQ causes, politics and religion — but that will have to wait for another day.

Shakespeare is all about the written word, theatre and cinema. How does the medium shape the Bard?

Shakespeare is all words, it’s not scenery. It’s not really costume. When the plays were first done, they didn’t have women. All were done by men. But words… words… words. When you do Shakespeare on stage, all that you do is concentrate on them. You try and get the words right. But who needs words in a film? However, there are compensations in cinema that are not available in theatre: the atmosphere can be created visually. But I think if I came down to it; as a purist I would say Shakespeare belongs in a theatre where the audience is present. Often in a Shakespeare play, the actor would turn to the audience and say, “to be or not to be that’s the question,” expecting an answer. It’s difficult to do that in a film. Although we did try to do that in Richard III ; we did have soliloquies. Shakespeare works very well on television, where we are used to people talking to us, we have the talking heads. He works even better on radio, where you just have the words.

The voice, words and the listeners’ imagination…

There you go. However, if someone were to make a film in Hindi or Japanese, they wouldn’t have to worry about words because they are dealing with something else. Shakespeare then is the raw material out of which people fashion their own films.

When you play him on stage and in front of the camera how does it differ for you as an actor?

In the theatre, the audience is there. You can hear them breathing, laughing, coughing, you can hear them applauding. But in cinema there is no audience, there’s just the camera. It is different. I wouldn’t want say that qualitatively one is superior to the other. But there is a difference. I find it easier if the audience is there, live. But that’s just me.

Any on-screen adaptation which has worked particularly well for you?

I liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet . I was very pleased that when I congratulated him on it he told me that if he hadn’t seen our Richard III he isn’t sure if he’d have been able to make Romeo and Juliet . We are all interconnected. I have seen Vishal Bhardwaj’s films and they are very good. Shakespeare seems very sympathetic to the complications of relationships.

Does the Indianisation work for you?

I am all for that. Ben Johnson, who is a playwright, said of Shakespeare, “He is not of an age but for all time.” Not just all time, but all places. Indians can relate to Shakespeare because he was interested in the whole spectrum of society: from the top to the bottom, from the untouchable up to the emperor. Anton Chekov was interested in certain classes. Shakespeare had everybody. That’s not to say he didn’t have small parts, but the small parts were just as important as the big ones. No one is neglected in Shakespeare; he is a very democratic writer. So he appeals to Indians who know about class, caste and also know about democracy.

You just mentioned Chekov. As an actor you have worked with a range of playwrights. What makes Shakespeare different?

He is the most difficult. He is the most demanding. He is the guy who understood it all, and you have to try and measure up to him. It’s a bit like climbing Everest. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get to the top. The view is very good from half way up. But the energy required, the use of your body, face, voice, and your imagination, emotions, your mind: they all have to be engaged. Then somehow you have to be free, be an empty vessel so that Shakespeare can fill you up. That is hard and difficult but very rewarding.

Also challenging considering so many actors would have played the same parts…

That doesn’t matter. That just shows that they are very good parts. You have to think positively.

But that could be dictating your own approach to them in some way…

No, no. You forget the rest, you only care about yourself. Respond to the text, which is a very difficult thing to do. With the help of your director and actors you read the play and forget the rest. You may end up doing something other people may have done, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not putting-off to know that there have been so many successful Hamlets. It just means that it’s a wonderful, wonderful part that you as an actor will enjoy doing.

The first Shakespeare play that you watched?

Macbeth or was it Twelfth Night . I don’t remember.

Were you completely mesmerised?

Well, I was eight. And all I know is that I went back for more. I must have enjoyed it. You can at that age enjoy Shakespeare to a certain extent. The fun with Shakespeare is that the more you understand him the more there is to discover. It’s like digging in a mine. The deeper you go you keep coming up with jewels you didn’t know were there.

Your first Shakespearean role?

I did a bit of Twelfth Night, but that wasn’t the full play. I think it was Henry V at school.

I read somewhere that you tear the pages of the Bible which have the passage that castigates homosexuality in the hotels that you stay in…

Don’t repeat that because people don’t like it.

I just wanted to know if you have done it here in Mumbai as well.

I couldn’t find a Bible here. I haven’t defaced the Taj Mahal hotel in any way… (After a short pause) But it’s hard when you know these horrible words are right by your side when you are trying to go to sleep. There’s the book [Leviticus] which says that you shall not lie with a man as with a woman, that it’s an abomination which is punishable by death. No, I don’t want that.

Watch: Tête-à-tête with Sir Ian McKellen

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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 10:19:49 PM |

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