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Shakespeare, Gandalf, The Abbey Theatre… & Me.

April 23, 2014

Happy 450th to the Inevitable Willie S, as my brother once christened him. Birthday and Death Day – as dramatic as they come.

So, a little story for Shakespeare’s birthday.

A long time ago, in Capital City, I was part of a group of drama students. We acted, we discussed, we despaired, we made our own costumes, did our own publicity, and went to as many plays as money allowed. I had friends who fortunately had a bit more dosh, and had seen shows in London. One of them was Ian McKellan’s Acting Shakespeare.

McKellan on Shakespeare

McKellan on Shakespeare

So we were well warned when we heard that McKellan was bringing the show to the Abbey Theatre for one night only – persuaded by a school (whose old boys were most of U2), for the benefit of an AIDS charity. We got our tickets early.

The show was marvellous. I can still see him stretched out on the stage…a Romeo hiding in the shadows. I remember his Juliet, and the poignancy of his Mistress Quickly.

The evening flew by. But, our London-play-going pals has us primed.

Ian (for plain Ian he was then) had barely opened his mouth to ask for volunteers when our gang dashed from our seats towards the stage. Some hauled themselves up. McKellan reached out his hand to help me onto the stage. I was star-struck.

Gathering us to him in a huddle (his arm around my shoulder), he whispered his plans. He was going to do a scene from Richard III. He needed us to play dead. One of us might like to fall decoratively into the throne that was placed stage right.

‘I’ll click my fingers’, he said.

We watched. We listened.

We listened. We watched.

He began to tell a story about an old actor who always forgot his lines when it came to listing the dead after the battle: the parchment handed to him by the messenger had the relevant names written on it.

McKellan’s  hand curled up behind his back.

Fingers poised.

We focused on the fingers.

The fingers clicked.

We dropped in a single thud.

Guffaws from the audience.

Best audience I ever had.

And there we lay, the dead of Bosworth Field, as McKellan held a full house in the palm of his hand.

Surrounded by his volunteer ‘bodies’, he told the story of the night the messenger handed the actor a blank piece of paper and how he attempted  improvisation: adding to Plantagenet history barons with names such as Boeuf du Bourgignon –  populating the play with more fallen nobles than Shakespeare had intended.

McKellan brought the house down.

And then he gathered us up again, to join him in a curtain call.

I wrote to him and sent the letter on to his next venue. He wrote back.

Ian, Sir Ian, Gandalf, Patrick Stewart’s best theatre & Twitter buddy, maestro… call him whatever takes your fancy. To me he’s a gent.

I still have the letter.


I could give you a link to a serious Hey Nonny Nonny song for the day that is in it.  But, no – there’s this instead!



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