Ian McKellen’s favourite Shakespeare roles on film

Ian McKellen

It is 400 years since Shakespeare died and, as part of the festivities, Ian McKellen is spearheading a selection of Shakespearean films at the BFI in London that will tour 110 countries, including Cuba, Iraq, Russia and the US, in the most extensive film programme ever undertaken.

We will be able to revel in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet (were star-crossed lovers ever more swooningly starry?), in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran – a compelling Japanese reinvention of King Lear – and salute a masterly, and remastered, Richard III, which will be presented live on stage for a UK-wide simulcast starring McKellen himself.

I met McKellen at the BFI last month to quiz him about his choice of the 10 best Shakespearean performances on film. I found him in good form and in possession of a dashing green hat of the sort a South American gaucho might wear – or a knight of the theatre. I asked whether he thought Shakespeare would have been a man of the cinema, and he said he thought he would have preferred theatre, if only because playwrights tend to be better regarded than screenwriters.

I also asked whether it was necessary, if you were to be a great actor, to perform Shakespeare? For English actors, he said, it probably was. He added: “Shakespeare was an actor, you know.” And then, with obvious delight: “It is sometimes said that the greatest Englishman was an actor…which is rather sweet, isn’t it?” And with that, we sat down to business.

Your first choice is Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth (1979), directed by Trevor Nunn. This film started life as a theatre production in which you played Macbeth.
It began on stage at the Other Place, Stratford. It was two hours long and played without an interval. Trevor Nunn told us he would “photograph the text”, by which he meant there would be no distractions in the film – no Scotland, scenery or even much costume – it was all in closeup. And this suited Judi because that was how she had played it in the theatre. She did not have to adapt her performance on film and was able to retain its intensity.

Judi Dench in Macbeth (1979)

What’s interesting for actors is that this was a performance Judi had given hundreds of times, yet in front of the camera it seems actually to be happening to her – that is the trick of acting I suppose. Usually, in film, you are inventing in the moment but she was remembering. At the heart of her Lady Macbeth is the love for her husband, a need for that relationship – no matter how wrong it had gone in the past. Judi made sense of everything.

I can remember suggesting to Trevor Nunn that the Macbeths were like the Nixons. He said: “No, no, no, no – the Kennedys.” The Kennedys were the most popular and glamorous of couples. The Macbeths are too, in their own way. No one could believe they could go so madly off the rails.

Your second choice is Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus (2011), which was also his directorial debut. This was a film set in what could be seen as 1990s war‑torn Serbia…
Like Olivier, Branagh and me, Ralph Fiennes was working on a play he had done in the theatre. He was able to translate a story set in the ancient past and bring it up to date. Fiennes achieves a wonderful immediacy as Coriolanus. This is big-hearted acting, yet small enough for the screen. Fiennes and Gerard Butler’s Tullus Aufidius are, in this film, twinned as powerful fighting machines.

All film-makers have to remember that the camera is almost a character and that is where you can potentially (although they avoided it here) run into problems. There is, after all, no character in Shakespeare called Camera.

You have cheated a bit by choosing three actors: Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas and Annette Bening from Richard III (1995), which you adapted and starred in and which is now being remastered for the BFI.
My initial feeling was gratitude that they all agreed, for very little money, to be involved in a project that was a bit crazy, and to slot into a production they had not been part of before. Maggie Smith played my mother. I had always thought she was the crucial person in Richard’s life, the one who sent him off-kilter. She hated him even before he was born and said so – and you can’t have your mother say that to you without being affected by it. Richard returns hatred for hatred. Maggie brought considerable experience in handling Shakespeare’s verse and honoured the metre and did everything else that I approved of (I began acting at Cambridge, where they were very concerned about blank verse speaking). Maggie spoke with all that inner force she has, and indignation and power.

Richard III (1995) trailer

Kristin Scott Thomas was great too. She realised Lady Anne was on her uppers when Richard woos her. He promises her a return to the corridors of power. On film, we were able to continue to imagine the story of Lady Anne, in silent moments. Coming over to work with British actors playing Shakespeare, as Annette Bening did, was very brave and she was terrific. They all were. Women are terribly important to that story.

Patrick Stewart as Lear in King of Texas (2002) – this is a more unconventional choice.
I don’t know if there is a word of Shakespeare in it. But it is wonderful. It takes the story of King Lear and pops it into a modern Texan setting. Patrick plays the Texan master rancher, the king of Texas, and it is great.

You see there are three sorts of Shakespeare on film. One is the direct photographing of a theatre production (as with Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth), then there is running away with a Shakespeare – like Kurosawa or Uli Edel [director of King of Texas] – so that it is more cinema than theatre and, third, there is a category in between in which I would include my Richard III, Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. They would not be the films they are were the people who made them not steeped in Shakespeare. These directors might cut Shakespeare’s words but never his intentions.

We also have to remember that many of these plots were themselves pinched by Shakespeare. He only invented one plot – The Tempest. Tom Stoppard once told me the most difficult thing about writing a play was coming up with the plot, which was why he liked to adapt things. It was the same for Shakespeare. So we have to be careful when we say the most wonderful thing about Shakespeare is his plots because they are not his.

Paul Scofield in King Lear (1971)

You have chosen Paul Scofield twice – first in Peter Brook’s King Lear (1971)…
This was an example of a stage production brought to the cinema with a full-ish text: you get a lot of the play. If you couldn’t see Lear on stage, this would be a very good substitute. I don’t know whether Brook’s film will stand the test of time. It might look a bit old-fashioned quite soon, but I don’t think Scofield’s performance will date. He could draw an audience into his soul. He did it with a remarkable voice and this beautiful face, even though he was far too young to play Lear – he was in his 40s. He looks grizzled in the film but doesn’t really look old.

And you have chosen him again as the ghost in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990).
You might think: right, with poor old Shakespeare on stage – how do you do ghosts? And you might then assume that with cinema and its technological magic there would be an opportunity to conjure a believable and frightening ghost. But all Scofield does is sit there – an apparently three-dimensional person, leaning exhausted against the battlements as he tells the story of his murder. What he has to say is almost whispered. It is a brilliant translation of the part on to the screen. You could not have got away with that whispering on stage. It still makes me shiver. Scofield is frightening by being very ordinary – very normal. He doesn’t play a ghost at all. But I suppose if you are a ghost, you don’t know that about yourself, do you?

Orson Welles as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1965)…
Orson Welles was a considerable man of the theatre and learned his trade assisting Micheál Mac Liammóir, the flamboyant Irish actor. But you couldn’t say Chimes at Midnight was Shakespeare, the whole script was an adapted concept. I suppose you could try to perform the filmed version on stage, but you would be robbing the audience of the thrill of Henry IV: Parts I and II, where you see all of society.

Here, you just get Falstaff’s life. Why is it special? It is just that the screen is full of that big man and you watch him with a lot of joy. There are not a lot of Falstaffs that convince. And Welles was a master, wasn’t he, of giving very big performances on screen – Citizen Kane, Othello, The Third Man

Romeo + Juliet trailer

You have chosen “everyone” in Baz Luhrmann’s wildly inventive Romeo + Juliet (1996), set on Verona beach starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio.
What I like about this film is that Baz Luhrmann seems to have read the play, understood it and translated it into a piece of cinema. That does not mean he slavishly follows Shakespeare’s text or that he does not have all sorts of inventions of his own – such as introducing guns instead of swords. But the characters are right there, you do not have to go looking for them. They are vibrant and present. The fact that the script deviated and that there were shocking things designed to scare and excite the audience seems to me to be in the spirit of the play.

The most touching thing was that I had enjoyed it so much and when I eventually met Baz Luhrmann, he said: “I would have lost heart and never made Romeo + Juliet if I hadn’t seen your Richard III.” So that was nice. We are all of a breed, the people I have been talking about – theatre people. It does not mean that theatre people are necessarily going to be good film-makers, but it does mean that when putting Shakespeare on as cinema they are going to go to the heart of what Shakespeare is – the words and the intensity of feeling. They are not going to use Shakespeare, they are going to try to translate him.

Laurence Olivier in Richard III (1955), which he also directed…
Olivier’s Henry V, Richard III and Hamlet are rooted in the theatre but broadened out to accommodate the cinema screen. It is difficult for me to judge but I am very glad to see those three performances up close. Olivier was too old to be playing Hamlet. It wouldn’t be allowed nowadays. He doesn’t look like an undergraduate, does he? But his Richard III is totally successful because the character is larger than life. You can sniff the fact that it began its life on stage.

Olivier used to say that he worked from the outside in, and what you get on the outside of his Richard III is the monstrous confidence of a bad man. It is not easy to play villainy with relish, but Olivier knew it worked because he had played it in the theatre so many times. When I was playing Richard III, I was interested as much in the world in which Richard functioned as I was with him himself. In our production, you know what everyone does for a job and get a sense of society having been corrupted. In the Olivier version, it is all costume and lords and ladies and rank is unclear. There were no soldiers’ uniforms in the 15th century.

Titus trailer

Anthony Hopkins in Titus (1999).
This film was directed by Julie Taymor and was another richly theatrical enterprise, an Italian-American-British historical thriller adaptation of the play. You know Julie Taymor – she directed The Lion King [the stage musical]. Anthony Hopkins’s performance is tremendous. It bursts out at the seams on screen – in a good way. Watching it you just feel: the pain, the pain, the pain… Anthony Hopkins is a new friend of mine and so I wouldn’t want to say anything critical about him – but that is all right because there is nothing critical I have to say.

BFI Presents Shakespeare on Film runs until 22 May. Richard III will be simulcast to UK cinemas from BFI Southbank on 28 April, alongside a live on-stage discussion between Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine. The remastered Richard III will be available on DVD from 20 June

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kate Kellaway, for The Observer on Sunday 3rd April 2016 07.30 Europe/London

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