When booking my trip to London I was looking to see a uniquely British show. Originally I planned on seeing Six, a show about the six wives of Henry VIII, but then I discovered it was coming to New York next year. I was delighted to discover that Ian McKellen was performing an 16 weeks only intimate show at the Harold Pinter theater.
This was a very cool experience. The audience settled in and suddenly, the lights went off entirely. When they came back on Sir Ian McKellen was on stage. He narrated the famous “though shall not pass” scene from Lord of the Rings. This went on for several minutes, before the lights cut again and he transitioned out of character.
Sir McKellen then began telling stories about his career. He talked about the filming of Lord of the Rings, how he got into acting, and his family. These were all very funny. There was a particularly good recurring joke about how fans would tell him they read Lord of the Rings every year. He read it for the first time when filming the series, and finds the disparity amusing.
In his next act, he performed as Twankey a character in the style of pantomime, a special type of British comedy, which often includes cross-dressing. To do this, he put a bonnet on his head and walked around with a handbag. She made jokes about her horrible dead husband, Donald J. Twankey. As the encore to this portion, she started throwing increasingly large items into the audience, beginning with little candies, and ending with a cucumber.
During the interval, Sir Ian McKellen wandered around the audience and chatted with attendees. I didn’t get a chance to say hi, but I appreciated how approachable he was to people in the theater.
As the show resumed he shared his coming out story with the crowd. He talked about the years he was in the closet, and how he accidentally came out by saying he was gay during a debate on a recorded radio show. There was a beautiful story about how he went to visit his grandmother before the show aired to tell her. He talked about being so nervous and when he finally said it she responded “Oh Ian, I thought you were going to tell me something terrible, I’ve known that for 35 years.”
A very strange thing happened next. A member of the audience decided to stop the show and share their coming out story. I honestly have no idea if this was staged or not. The story was eloquently told, but seemed out of nowhere. Sir McKellen let the man go on and tell his story before saying “are you okay now?” When the audience member responded “yes,” He said, “we’ll we have to go into the show now.”
This was such unique moment that can only happen in live theater. The actors are present with the audience, and I don’t think Sir Ian McKellen had much of an option but to let it happen.
The last bit was a lot of fun. Sir McKellen asked the audience “do you think between the lot of you, you could name all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.” The crowd was up for the challenge. As a group we shouted out all 37 plays. For each one Sir McKellen would share an anecdote or perform a scene from that play. I personally had the honor of shouting MACBETH, which caused the entire theater to make a shushing sound. It’s bad luck to say MacBeth in a theater. I knew this going in, and enjoyed it even more.
Overall this was such a special experience. We got such an intimate performance from such a talented actor. There were more surprises I didn’t mention above, and I’m so glad I got to attend. Definitely check out this show if you’re in London.