22 July 1990 | McKellen and his foot soldiers

First published in The Sunday Times

Richard III hits the road

"The National is not as well known outside this country as the Royal Shakespeare Company," said Ian McKellen, who is about to lead a National Theatre company around the world. "In fact, it's not easy to explain to people what its identity is. They think the RSC is our national theatre." 

He might have added that the same is true of many theatre-goers who live outside easy range of the capital. In practice they look on the RSC as their national company. The reason, in a word, is touring. The RSC is a theatre which people outside London see and hear about. With only three exceptions, no large UK city with a touring theatre has seen a National production direct from the South Bank for five years - in many cases more. Newcastle, which sees the Stratford repertoire every year, has not been visited by the National since 1980. 

Coming up to the end of his first two years as its director, Richard Eyre is determined to make the National Theatre more truly national. "If you're called National, the obligation to tour is inescapable," he told me last week. And just as he was wondering how best it could be achieved, Ian McKellen suggested that he would come back to the South Bank, where he was one of the chief ornaments in the Eighties, on condition that he could tour for a year. 

That is why the building is now buzzing - and bursting at the seams at previews - with McKellen's Richard III. Together with Brian Cox's King Lear, it is sojourning there for a month or two before setting off for Tokyo and the world on a journey lasting until next March. 

McKellen, whom Eyre describes as "in his prime", is following up his acclaimed villain of an NCO, Iago, with a supreme villain of the officer class, Richard Crookback of Gloucester. Offstage he carries with him a somewhat patrician air of leadership, a concern for the unity and welfare of his troupe, that should stand them in good stead on their progress to show the flag, not only at other national theatres in Paris and Madrid, but in places such as Prague, Bucharest and Moscow. It was McKellen who insisted that the home capitals of Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh must also be included, as well as Leeds and Nottingham. 

Most of his early years were spent on the road. It was with the old Prospect touring company that he first electrified audiences with his Richard II. He founded the Touring Actors' Company in the Seventies, and at the RSC he revived the community touring of towns and villages without theatres - which is now done with a 500- seat travelling auditorium. He led a National Theatre company in 1986 to international festivals in Paris and Chicago - the last time it was seen at either of them. Nobody could be more fitted or committed to the task of leading a company on the road. 

McKellen comes from Bolton and owes all his early experience of theatre to touring companies, in the days when these were frequent visitors to Manchester and other northern towns. Touring on that scale has long since stopped. "But don't let's be too romantic about it. A lot of the tours that I saw were attempts, not to bring us the best of British theatre but to boost the earnings of a show by dragging it round the provinces. The management were either trying to get it right before it opened in London or exploiting it after the London run with a substitute cast. I wouldn't wish those days back on anybody. They were nothing to do with the high standards and serious intentions which we have today. 

"In Sir Laurence's day the National toured much more but that was because he opened every play except one outside London. Othello toured for eight weeks before opening. He used the regions in the way the old managers used to do. 

"But the National is funded by taxpayers' money, and one of its obligations to the nation is, of course, to be seen outside London. Richard Eyre made his name running regional theatres. The National employs actors, including me, who retain their regional accents. And I can't think there are many actors in this company who would be opposed to touring. On the contrary, it adds a certain frisson to the air. The myth of actors as rogues and vagabonds doesn't die ... as long as the vagabondage includes at least a two-star hotel somewhere on the road." 

So why doesn't it happen more often? If it is possible for Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company, now barn-storming its way north to Edinburgh for the festival, to have put on an eight-month world tour in Shakespeare this year, or for Michael Pennington's English Shakespeare Company to spend 25 weeks of the year on the road at home and represent Britain at festivals in Jerusalem or Kiev, why cannot the National Theatre do likewise? Had Glenda Jackson got a point when she said she would close down the building and provide the National with a comfortable bus and a large tent? 

"It would be possible to hire the building out as a conference centre and turn the National into a touring company. But that is not the brief. The very concrete in which we now sit makes touring more complicated than it looks. It's easier for Renaissance or Compass to tour because they are designed for it. They haven't got to pay for the air conditioning and the overheads of a home base. When we take out a large company, audiences expect to see as nearly as possible the same production as they would see in this building. Bare boards and a passion are not enough. It means taking armourers, a wig department, dressers ... our whole company numbers 58, of whom 23 are actors. The sets have to be built to withstand travelling. So it's hugely expensive to get on the road. 

"People want to see the current hits but it's also impracticable to take them out of the repertoire - Racing Demon, for example - unless you recast them with a 'B team'. But audiences don't want a B team. They want the first team. So the way out of these problems is to do what we have now done for the first time - to devise productions especially for touring, although they are rehearsed, previewed and first performed here." Last year the National plugged the gap by mounting co-productions of The Misanthropist and The Beaux' Stratagem with two regional theatres, and touring them. 

The cost of the tour until next Christmas, before it embarks for Eastern Europe, is £1.25m, a sum that could not possibly be recouped at the box office. The National is not allowed to spend any of its Arts Council grant on touring. So it must not lose money on the enterprise. 

It is not a simple tour to finance - by a combination of government money and sponsorship, mainly by Guinness - but it is a very simple one to sell, says Roger Chapman, the National's head of touring. "With an actor of McKellen's stature I could place it anywhere. I had two Broadway producers competing for it on the telephone." When Chapman told him this, McKellen's reply was typical: "Why should we improve the cultural life of New York when you haven't booked us into Newcastle?" 

When McKellen accepted his self-imposed task as tour leader, he said: "Being me, the first thing I thought about was personnel. I wanted a group whose commitment to one another as a company would be reflected in their work on stage. The first question I asked every actor was whether they would understudy. To understudy one another is good for the company's community sense - besides, we can't afford to take an extra 10 actors around to do it." 

His democratic methods, which require any actor, however eminent, to play a supporting role if need be, also apply to himself. Having invited Deborah Warner to direct the King Lear she wanted (Brian Cox), he offered to play any part she wanted him for, which turned out to be the somewhat thankless role of Kent. He also understudies a (small) part as a herald. 

The other play took time to be resolved. It ought to have been a modem one. "We found that modern plays just didn't cross-cast with Lear, but Richard III did so amazingly well. Of course, I soon realised why - both plays were written for the same company of actors. I was then in the position of being able to invite Richard Eyre to direct a play in his own theatre." The choice turned out to be a relief to McKellen, who at first had not really wanted to play Richard III at all. "I thought it was a distasteful play; but now it turns out to be a wonderful play, in a production like no other that I have seen." 

Recruiting the company for such an arduous, long-lasting tour was not a quick business. There were many who turned McKellen down, mainly for financial reasons. National Theatre money allows actors to survive, but very few middle-aged actors with expensive family commitments work there for long. They need TV series or films to bolster their income. Peter Jeffrey, a prolific television performer, who plays Gloucester and Clarence on the tour, signed on because, he said, "they were two parts I badly wanted to play in places I badly wanted to see, and luckily my next TV series is not due to be shot until just after the tour ends. I don't like to be away from the classics for too long, but you often have to subsidise, in effect, the theatre which can offer you classical parts." Some people joined the company in spite of all family difficulties - Cordelia Monsey, whose mother was the actress Yvonne Mitchell, is taking her three-year-old child on the tour with a minder, at her own expense, rather than miss her chance as assistant director. 

Actors rarely end a tour in pocket. The standard daily touring allowance is £31 a day, which does not cover a three-star hotel at current prices. Foreign hotels are paid for, but even in Tokyo, where a meal can cost £60, the daily living allowance is only £48. 

McKellen obviously believes that all actors true to their calling want to tour. "This is as good a group, on stage and off, as I have ever worked with. They've taken on a year of very hard work - eight performances a week in two mighty plays, with only one two-week break for Christmas. High on anyone's list of reasons for joining must be their commitment to a company and all that means. It's not a romantic notion. The company - not a star system - is what the National Theatre is supposed to be about." 

His own attitude to giving up a year of his life to the tour is enlightening. "I don't see it as giving anything up. What else would I rather do with a year of my life? Nothing."

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