Although his film career prior to Richard III has consisted largely of forgettable supporting roles in films such as The Shadow, The Keep and Last Action Hero, Sir Ian McKellen has been one of the leading lights of the British classical stage since the early 1960s.
Acclaimed in most of Shakespeare's more familiar leads--Macbeth, Hamlet, Leontes, Romeo--McKellen won a Tony, among other awards, for his performance as Salieri in Amadeus on Broadway. In recent years, he has become a prominent activist for gay and lesbian causes; the one-man show that he uses to benefit gay rights is wittily titled A Knight Out.
On a recent tour to promote Richard III, McKellen spoke about updating Shakespeare for the 20th-century audience.
MVM: Why did you choose the 1930s as the setting for your version?
IM: We agreed that that was a period in which the story could convincingly be retold, as if Richard had come to life again in the 1930s. It basically borrowed the 1930s, but not slavishly; it's not the real Tower of London, you never see Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street, you never see anybody on the telephone. It's just using the 1930s as a shorthand.
I like to set Shakespeare in a modernish period, because the minute you do, audiences realize that the characters are wearing clothes and that they're real people; they're not wearing costumes, they're not in a pageant. There's nothing, for me, useful about Shakespeare productions which present them as all having taken place an awfully long time ago in Merry England or something. I don't like that sentimentalizing of Shakespeare; he's as up-to-date as David Mamet, writing about concerns which have been perpetual concerns for humans for the past 400 years.
MVM: I assume this doesn't mean you think it's never appropriate to produce Shakespeare as a period piece.
IM: Actually, if I had to be adamant about it, I would say it was never appropriate. Ican't think of why it would be appropriate. Maybe Henry VIII. In that case, Shakespeare was writing about somebody whohad only just died, whereas Richard III had been dead for a hundred years. So maybe it would be perverse to update Henry VIII.
But, you know, what period do you put King Lear in? Or Macbeth? Or Hamlet? Shakespeare wasn't writing about the specifics of history. But you don't go relentlessly down the road with it, either. I've seen Romeo and Juliets where Mercutio came in on a motorbike, and you just think, "Why?"
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It's the difference, I suppose, between a production of Richard III that uses telephones and one that doesn't. I think you're all right if your motives for doing it are right, if your intention is clear--that you're not doing Richard III in order to illuminate the 1930s, but rather using elements of recent modern history in order to clarify what is obscured if you set it in some bygone era.
MVM: So what you lose by doing a play about tyranny in a traditional period is a sense of political immediacy?
IM: I've seen Richard IIIs where it wasn't at all clear that he was a soldier. But he is a soldier; part of his problem is that he's a soldier with nothing to do, because he's been so successful. It's Macbeth all over again.
Shakespeare was always writing about soldiers who are not fighting. Othello goes wrong when he stops fighting, Much Ado About Nothing is about soldiers notfighting, and what mischief they get into; it's the comedic version. Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida--my God, Shakespeare was obsessed with soldiers off duty, and I don't think he thought they made very good politicians. That's apoint that cannot be made too often.--M. V. Moorhead