31 August 2011 | David Weston "Covering McKellen"

David Weston showed me an early draft of what is now called Covering McKellen: An Understudy's Tale, at the end of the Lear/Seagull productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company in which he understudied me.  I should be flattered if anyone bought it on account of its title.

David is the most diligent of actors and thrives within a company.  His reports in this book are partial, as is to be expected.  He wasn't the only one to keep a diary of those days.  May we soon read Frances Barber: The Year of the Broken Leg or indeed my own Travels in Madness or, most tantalizingly of all, My Fool and Spoons by Sylvester McCoy?

The productions were on occasion fraught with tensions, on and off the stage.  So what's new?  As we travelled from Stratford via Singapore, New Zealand, Australia and the United States then to London, I made lasting friendships.  Every performance was a thrill.  The audiences universally enthusiastic.  

I especially enjoyed being back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, having played Edgar there to Robert Eddison's soulful Lear in the Actors' Company 1974 production.  35 years on, I overslept at BAM and missed an entrance deep into the play.  Previews of Weston's Covering McKellen have made much of this episode.

Shakespeare obligingly gives most of his tragic heroes a break from the action, so the actors can rest up before the final onslaught.  With a 20-minute interval Lear gets almost an hour in the dressing-room.  Eric Porter in Trevor Nunn's first RSC Lear (I was his third) always had a kip before the mad scenes.  Me too.  At Stratford I'd nip through the side door of the Courtyard Theatre and slip along the alley to the garden door of Susie Sainsbury's riverside cottage.  There I could snooze or watch the television news with Smack the bulldog, who lived with me and Ms Barber.  Or I snacked and forgot I was in a play.  It helped prepare for the utterly changed Lear at the hour's end.  

In Brooklyn I took my mid-show nap on a sofa in the dressing-room I shared with six other actors.  One night none of the rotters, nor my culpable dresser, thought to wake me for my entrance.  I'd cuddled up under some blankets and I'm not a snorer.  I must have given David a shock, if he thought I couldn't carry on.  But I did and that night, the Lear/Gloucester scene with Bill Gaunt had an added poignancy.  

I was off on my very first professional performance. If you wanted to know more about that, you could get one of the last few tickets for Back at the Belgrade September 4th 2011 being the exact day, 50 years ago, that I started.  I'll be telling some tales, much as David has done in his book.  

Meantime it's The Syndicate eight times a week. There are still tickets in  Cambridge,  Bath and  Milton Keynes.  If you enjoy it as much as I do every performance, you are in for a very good time.  My understudy, David Foxxe is a discreet friend. I'm not expecting a book by him.  But you never know and I'd certainly love to read it.  

— Ian McKellen, August 2011

Covering McKellen

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