1982 | Tears in Bratislava

First published in The Sunday Telegraph Magazine

When Ian McKellen played Richard II in Czechoslovakia in 1969 he feared this mediaeval tale in a foreign tongue would receive a cool reception. He recalls that it was in fact one of the most moving experiences in his career. 

We had rehearsed the play for four weeks and played it on tour in Britain for a further eight. The next year, we revived it for the Edinburgh festival and a short run at the Mermaid Theatre in London. Only then did we take it abroad. This was 1969, when the British Council, which organises such visits, could still afford to sponsor regular, large troupes of artists around the world. 

Not that our journeying was extensive: we went to only two cities. First to Vienna, and then across the Danube to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia's second capital. Had we not performed the play so often, the Czech significance might have been lost on me. 

Any play, even one by Shakespeare - even a success, which our Richard II certainly was - any play can pall for the actors who have to repeat it night after night after matinee. Particularly on tour, the play often becomes a harbour of rest after the rigours of settling in digs and of exploring a new city, if you delight, as I do, I strange places, at home or abroad. The days and late nights may be extraordinary, whilst the performances of the play which intervene can seem comfortingly familiar and, for some, even boring. 

We had not right to be bored with Richard II and I, lucky to be playing the King himself, was not. But at least, I was used to it; believed that I had understood the play fully, that I had realised my part of it; that the Prospect Theatre Company had, in short, cracked it. 

From the word go, from "Will you play Richard for me?" I had said "yes" to almost everything Richard Cottrell had directed me to do. We were old friends from university days, a decade earlier, but this was our first professional job together. I had done little Shakespeare but as Cottrell and I talked it through, we agreed on a view of the play and wanted badly to stage it. 

There was no way, we decided, to make tragic the dilemma of a mediaeval king, unless we could explain to a modern audience the mediaeval beliefs which informed his reign. We had to make credible the divine right of kings. Without it, Richard's fall from the golden stardom of godship to the obscurity of humanity would not be credible either. And that fall seemed to us his particular tragedy. 

We had a simple touring set but the elaborate costumes reinforced the hierarchy of the court, with the king at its apex. As the actor who must embody the tragic decline, I cast around for a modern equivalent, from whom I might transfer credibility to the mediaeval king. 

I thought of those gods and goddesses of the movies, who have found real life intolerable and whose corpses now litter Hollywood's glamorous history. I thought, more helpfully, of the Dalai Lama and the insurrection forced on Tibet by her erstwhile friends in China. Did the god-emperor in exile suffer something like Richard's dejection and determination in his imprisonment? 

One magical day in rehearsal, we discovered a gesture, a regal, priestly upraising of the arms, symbolic, but deeply felt. The feeling was right and, on it, I quickly built the rest of the character. The other actors' work helped crucially, for as they invested me with it, I could believe in the divine right. Yes, I had cracked it. I could next concentrate on the whole play and not just my part in it. 

The most important general interpretation was that, surrounded by panoply, by the nation beyond and the silver sea beyond that, Richard II is a family story. Everyone at its center is related by the blood which will be spilled during the ensuing civil wars. These royals, generals, politicians and clergy have grown up together, their bloody quarrels are long-standing, are a grotesque exaggeration of any family's enmity and loyalty. Pleased with this insight and despite my thoughts on the Dalai Lama, I had missed the equally overwhelming truth, that the play's politics were so accurately explored by Shakespeare that they remained revealingly modern 350 years later. 

Then we reached Bratislava. It was my first job abroad and I had not anticipated the extra role which actors are expected to play when they work away from home. We were briefed by a British Council official: "Remember that Czechoslovakia is in a tricky condition just now, so the service won't be all that good in your hotel. I'm afraid. And your rooms will probably be bugged". Thus we were appointed to be unpaid ambassadors from Britain. 

At the border, delayed by inspections and unnerved by the guns, I peeped through the window of the customs hut and saw, pinned to the wooden wall, an unframed, unsmiling photograph of Dubcek. Until some six months previously, he had been Prime Minister. Now his springtime of increasing democracy had reverted to winter. The Russians had invaded. 

As I wondered about this little poster of defiance, I failed also to consider that Dubcek's fall at the hands of his neighbours and allies was a parallel for the Dalai Lama's attack from his neighbours. Nor did I make a connection between those Russian and Chinese invasions and Bolingbroke's challenge to Richard II's sovereignty.

Czechoslovakia was a prison. The few inmates we met were quietly critical of the new politicians, whom the Russians had appointed to replace Dubcek's supporters. Even the official interpreter shook her head when I asked for a translation of the one Serbo-Croatian word, scrawled over the base of a war memorial. "Freedom", she admitted and shook her head again. 

We wondered who, amid all these troubles, might want to come and see our ancient play, a foreign tale told in a foreign language. All publicity for our visit had been silenced under the new regime. Indeed, until the last moment, they had seemed to want to cancel the performances. How might it be thought that we actors were subversives? Somehow word got round and our first night (of only two) was sold out. 

The theatre was not impressive. Perhaps it had been a postwar cinema, for the audience was stretched in one shallow tier, across the width of the smallish stage. The city officials and their spouses were wedged in the centre of the house - we would be meeting them at a reception afterwards. For the rest, the audience was noisy and excited. 

Most of the women wore head-scarves. The university had allowed some students in. On our bare stage we began, under lighting which functioned weakly on the low local voltage. The play proceeded as normal, although perhaps a little slower, as we tried to make our foreign English understandable. We reached Act 3, Scene 2, where Richard weeps for joy to stand upon his kingdom once again. The king kneels down on the defenceless earth. Down I go in my gleaming armour, my right hand, in its golden glove, reaching out to touch the boards, to touch England: 

"Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand . . ." (tearful, then gaining an urgent confidence)
"Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs . . . ." (left hand too caresses the earth; my head brought closer down to whisper)
"Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth. Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense . . ." (Do they understand that sweets are flowers ?) 
"But let thy spiders, that suck up thy venom. And heavy-gaited toads . . ." (toads that lollop along) 
"lie in their way, 
"Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet Which with usurping steps do trample thee . . ." (Can the audience really be getting all this? They are unusually silent, as if some corporate breath has been inhaled. Will the next sound from them be a sigh of boredom: worse, a snore?) 

It was less orthodox than that when it came; the plash, the gasp, the snuffles, the mewing. I have never heard it since, an audience crying. They were grieving, I understood, fool that I had been, because Richard's words could have been their own, when their land was invaded so recently, when sticks and stones had been pelted at armoured cars and tanks, when the earth was their only symbol of a future freedom, of a continuing past. I wish I could believe that the performance soared to match the audience's commitment to our play. But I cannot record more than that, ever since, I have been assured that Shakespeare s politics, his wars and histories, always have a modern significance.

Ian McKellen, 1980s

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