It was a joy to be reunited with Judi Dench with whom I had played for a year in The Promise. The text and import of Shaw's play were not easy to grasp. He was experimenting and there is some jiggery-pokery with an amiable germ/bug in Act One, a parody of his friend Lawrence of Arabia, as well as the usual Shavian reversals where expectations are confounded. Elsewhere he turns a flower-girl into a society beauty and her dustman father into a philosopher. I had already played O'Flaherty V.C., the First World War hero who despises war, and now I was playing a burglar called Aubrey who turns out to be a preacher. The part requires a light-comedy finesse which is capped by the final peroration of a glorious sermon.
The first act is set in a typical South London villa. The designer, who I suspected didn't read the play, provided us with an extravaganza of silver and black, more suited to an art deco villa on the Cote d'Azure. The second act was on a beach, with me in a one-piece bathing suit, as Judi lolled in a deckchair.
One night I couldn't get through our scene. The previous evening I was at a Soho restaurant after the show with a friend. At an adjacent table, two senior actors were drinking and dining and drinking some more. Douglas Campbell was railing to his companion William Squire against the appalling acting of Ian McKellen, whom he had just seen in "Too True to be Good". "Just a bloody show-off, Bill! All so-called technique! Voice going up and down the scale! What's it all coming to? I tell you, if Tony were alive today he'd turn in his grave!" This was a reference to the brilliant director Tyrone Guthrie whom Campbell and I shared and revered as a mentor. I chuckled, remembering the pompous Campbell when we shared a variety bill at the opening of the Crucible Theatre Sheffield a couple of years back and I thought nothing of it — until the following night during the second act. In the bathing costume which had always made me feel, shall we say, exposed, I recalled Campbell's tirade word for word and thought to myself, everyone out there in the dark agrees with him. I am a rubbish actor. Tony Guthrie would be ashamed of me. And then I couldn't speak and could scarcely move although I managed to turn away with my back to the audience. Judi, sensing my distress, somehow cobbled together the remains of the scene as a monologue and the crisis passed. Well, not quite, because it took the rest of the run at the Globe, where we had transferred after a huge success at the Aldwych Theatre, to cope and recover from this, my only bitter taste of stage fright. — Ian McKellen, May 2003
In that final speech, in which all his predecessors that I have seen have failed, Ian McKellen rises to supreme heights. No actor but Mr McKellen could pass so superbly from the light-hearted nonchalance of the first part of his performance to the despairing thunder of its tremendous ending, when, the stars splitting and reeling above him, he is like a prophet on Mount Sinai. There are notes of lamentation and destruction in his voice that bring a constriction to one's throat and sweat to one's brow" — Harold Hobson, Plays and Players