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The knight who would be king

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THERE'S not a word in "King Lear" about any "Queen Lear," but Ian McKellen takes the stage nonetheless wearing two wedding rings, ones few in the audience will notice. Sir Ian simply had an epiphany as he prepared to take on the great Shakespearean role for the first time -- that the aged king likely had had two wives, the first bearing him his eldest daughters, now so plotting and duplicitous, and the second giving him sweet Cordelia, the youngest. McKellen imagined a more detailed back story for that second marriage too, one that has the beloved second Queen Lear having died in childbirth, and now their girl is about the same age she was then, putting all these complex feelings in the recesses of the king's mind -- and Sir Ian's -- as they make their grand entrance and for 3 1/2 hours become one and the same tragic figure.

Oh, yes, that entrance: Shakespeare would have had a hard time making it in Hollywood, given how he offers barely a hint of what the movie world considers a necessary first act, the scenes acquainting us with the main characters and their lives before the complication arises. Lear begins with the complication, the old king wishing to be "unburdened" in his "crawl toward death" and thus inviting his daughters to profess their love for him, then dividing his kingdom among the two eldest, who play the flattery game to the hilt, while stiffing the truly adoring Cordelia, who refuses to play along. Despair and tumult follow and, eventually, death to all of them.

But that still leaves the theater troupe room to establish something before the first word is uttered. So in the world tour of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which begins a 10-day run at UCLA's Royce Hall on Friday, director Trevor Nunn, McKellen's old Cambridge schoolmate -- Sir Trevor nowadays -- serves up some Phantom of the Opera organ music and the king marches in with a strutting military escort, this Lear having been set in a kingdom resembling czarist Russia. The center of attention then puts his gnarly hands to his head, not trying to soothe any ache -- that comes later -- but as if he's dialing up the Gods.

That that's exactly what he's up to is clear a moment after, when he ritualistically extends those hands right and left, bestowing blessings to his people in the manner of the pope.

Thus do we understand before the first line of Shakespearean dialogue that this Lear was not only a warrior king but a priest king, though his faith in the gods will have eroded by the time he finds himself wandering out in that storm and sees fit -- he and 68-year-old Ian McKellen -- to drop his pants.

Something of a wizardTHE sign in the lobby of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, where the Royal Shakespeare Company was in residence for most all of September, warned audiences arriving for "King Lear" to expect gunshots and strobe lights. But there was no alert that the wizard of "The Lord of the Rings" would wave his magic wand during Lear's peak moment of madness, or enlightenment, depending how you look at it.

The morning after one of the last performances here -- the company alternates "Lear" with Chekhov's "The Seagull" -- McKellen recalled how that bit of exposed theatricality evolved from his early talks with Nunn, who like him made his name in the classics and then branched out into more commercial fare, in the director's case by staging such musicals as "Cats" and "Les Misérables." The onetime schoolboy pals agreed it was time for McKellen to tackle Lear after a career in which he'd earned raves for his clarity ("they could tell what I was up to") portraying such Shakespearean title characters as Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III. But McKellen was concerned with the difficulty of keeping audiences "riveted" nowadays, not to mention the exhausting nature of the role, both physically and mentally, so he made just one request -- that they trim the play to three hours.

The director swore they'd do that, McKellen said, as long as he got two things. "I remember him now, he was getting into a taxi, 'Rain and naked.' He definitely wanted to have real water on the stage" -- during the famous storm scene -- "and he wanted Lear to succeed in removing his clothes . . . . Well I kept my side of the bargain," the actor quipped. "I suffer the rain and I do take my clothes off."

You can make the case that the action merely follows Shakespeare's prompting after Lear has been driven into the wilds by the two daughters he foolishly empowers. That's where the king declares himself "more sinned against than sinning" and encounters the semi-naked beggar who inspires his realization that man, without such trappings of civilization, is no more than "a poor, bare forked animal." He then references his own clothes, saying "Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here," a cue to many Lears to strip down to their skivvies. And a decade ago, England's other acting Sir Ian -- Ian Holm, who played the hobbit Bilbo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings" -- went all the way as Lear, and stayed bare for perhaps 20 minutes.

That was hardly feasible for a celebrity figure such as McKellen.

"There's a good argument for not doing it -- it's distracting," he noted. "How can an audience not look at genitalia on display when they have the license to do it in a darkened theater?" But why not give a lingering flash, and then with a subtle touch? As McKellen drops his pants, he tries to remove his shirt too, but fails -- it gets stuck over his head. That means his face is obscured even as other parts are bared, all while Shakespeare is offering a bit of blasphemy hundreds of years before Darwin. "In 1605, a man stands up in a country where it was the law of the land to go to church, where you were presumed to believe in creationism and the fact that we are fashioned after God's likeness," the actor explained, "and King Lear says, 'Do you know what I think? We're all just animals.' . . . It would be a perverse act if you didn't unbutton at that point."

A button also figures in the play's wrenching last moments, when an exhausted Lear carries the body of Cordelia, his beloved daughter who will never breathe again. "Never, never, never, never, never," the king says before asking those around him for the most mundane of favors, "Pray you undo this button" -- he's too weak by then to loosen his own shirt.

As McKellen recites the ghostly five "nevers," while slumped on the stage, his hands again reach right and left, as they had at the play's opening, just now with human pleading, not divine power.

That's the artistic argument for taking it off, for literally unbuttoning earlier. But must not the wise old actor worry whether he will . . . well, look every inch a king? Or is it best to leave the mechanics of that, like much of art-making, a mystery.

"Should I wear false genitalia, which perhaps I am doing?" Sir Ian says. "I'm not going to discuss that."

Directly into his scrapbookIT'S the furthest thing from a vacation, a tour like this, with the nights of "Lear" followed by nights of "The Seagull," in which McKellen and the company's William Gaunt take turns as the play's old-timer, a retired bureaucrat who has second thoughts about the choices he made in life. But there have been episodes en route worth preserving in the memory scrapbook.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, where they started, it was "a lad of 7" who came to see the wise and brave Gandalf from "Lord of the Rings" but who after sitting through those 3 1/2 hours of "Lear" gushed, "It was the best play I ever saw!"

In New Zealand, where McKellen lived for a year filming the "Rings" trilogy, he hosted director Peter Jackson and other cast members at the theater and had a cup of tea at the home of mountaineer Edmund Hillary, the legendary conqueror of Everest who now is Lear's age, in his 80s. "He was complaining about the steepness of his drive," McKellen recalled, "which was ironic for the man who climbed Everest."

When he catches a glimpse of himself in a shop window these days, McKellen sometimes feels like a "dreadful old geezer" himself, one "in whose company I don't want to be." It's how he's dyed his hair white for Lear, grown a scraggly gray beard and allowed his body to seem decrepit on stage, appearing to never take a step in balance, if not quite stumbling about, "and I do notice that sometimes after the performance," he said, "I'm still in Lear's body rather than my own." In developing his walk, he thought of the slow gait of England's royals at formal occasions, when they're weighted down in their crowns and robes.

If he'd pondered it ahead of time, he probably would have talked the RSC out of going to Singapore, where it's still a crime to make love to someone of the same sex. McKellen has been a crusader on such issues since he so publicly came out of the closet, at 49, on a British radio show, after a right-wing commentator began speaking about gay people as "them." McKellen retorted, "Let's not talk about them. Let's talk about me."

Two decades later, there he was in the notoriously autocratic island nation of Singapore and they asked him and Frances Barber, who plays one of Lear's greedy older daughters, Goneril, to go on a morning TV talk show. What struck McKellen right off were the hosts, one of these "rather plastic couples that sit there in every TV studio in the world in the morning, it seems to me, I don't know where they find these people, clearly not in a relationship yet flirting publicly."

He continued, "It's the oddest situation, but they said to me, 'Are there any questions about Singapore?' or what was I going to do while I was here, and I said, 'I'm interested in finding any gay bars' and wondered whether the man there could recommend one to me. Well, I saw the playback and the credits have never come up quicker on the show than they did on that one."

From here in New York, the company had one stop before L.A. -- in Minneapolis, where Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was arrested in an airport bathroom after playing footsie with an undercover police officer, allegedly as a gay come-on. Though Craig has denied he is gay, and opposed legislation barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, McKellen has considerable sympathy for a man whose plight could almost provide a Shakespearean plot -- the powerful figure trying to keep up appearances while his former allies campaign to drive him into exile. On another level, the incident is reminiscent of a restroom arrest decades ago that threatened to derail the career of John Gielgud, one of McKellen's predecessors among the Shakespearean elite. During one public appearance here in New York, McKellen related how he'd long tried to convince Gielgud and Alec Guinness -- both knighted as he was -- to come out of the closet.

"If it is as it appears, that he's been caught up behaving in a way that he regrets, well, join the club," McKellen said of the American senator, while decrying such police stings that hint at entrapment and ruin lives. If the authorities want to stop assignations in public restrooms, he suggests, all they need to do is plant a uniformed officer outside. He thought about it some more and said, "I gather the bathroom . . . is in Minneapolis, which is our next port of call. So we're all going to have to take a look at where the dreadful deed took place."

The itinerary for L.A.WHO'S to say what tale will emerge from the stop in Los Angeles, but McKellen has some in reserve from past visits, and like the Shakespearean repertoire, they're a mix of comedy and tragedy.

"There are people who say, 'I saw your "Richard III" in Royce Hall. Of course, I didn't hear it,' " he recalled, dredging up one that has him a bit apprehensive about the company's return to the UCLA venue, though he's been reassured there's no more deadly echo, "it's absolutely transformed." It had better be, for while Lear is one Shakespearean figure never once left alone on stage -- there always are other characters around him -- at times he mutters to himself and it's hard to shout a mutter to the back row of seats.

He did his Richard III in 1992, when UCLA also established an Ian McKellen theater scholarship, funded in part by a gala dinner that drew such showbiz power brokers as Mike Ovitz, Sherry Lansing and Ron Meyer. But a Times columnist noted afterward that for all the "palpable excitement among the Hollywood heavyweights . . . none of it has translated into big movie roles for the man that Jack Lemmon introduced as 'the No. 1 actor of our times.' "

But those would come his way, at an advanced age for an actor, with his "Ring" gig and such blockbusters as the "X-Men" series (as Magneto) and "The Da Vinci Code." Perhaps that's why he can laugh now at the memory of that '92 dinner when, as he tells it, Lemmon introduced him not merely as the world's greatest actor, but as "my own personal friend."

The punch line: "I'd never set eyes on him before."

Icon that he is now, McKellen did make one demand for the Royal Shakespeare Company's last stop in America -- that 150 precious tickets be set aside, as freebies, for special friends of his. No, not fellow movie luminaries -- students past and present from Hobart Boulevard Elementary School near Koreatown, whose teacher Rafe Esquith has become something of a celebrity himself for his classes using Shakespeare to inspire kids not exactly brought up with Hamlet's soliloquy as bedtime reading.

Esquith was a relatively novice teacher, however, when he brought his class in 1987 to hear McKellen's one-man show, "Acting Shakespeare," at the Westwood Playhouse. As part of the evening, McKellen would challenge audience members to name all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, and when it came to the tough ones -- "Pericles," "Timon of Athens," "Cymbeline" -- the answers were shouted out by these youngsters in "Will Power" T-shirts. McKellen has worked with Esquith's classes ever since, unabated by his transformation into a "megastar," the teacher says -- indeed, McKellen even flew in from New Zealand while doing "Lord of the Rings" to see their own "Lear."

This year, he'll escort the entire RSC cast to their classroom Oct. 23 to catch their performance of snippets of Shakespeare blended with some surprise music -- say, Hamlet's early scene of mourning for his dad, with his mother imploring him to perk up, to "cast thy nighted color off," followed by a retort courtesy of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It, Black," which Esquith promises will be "some pretty blistering rock 'n' roll."

All McKellen asks in return is that they catch his act at Royce Hall.

OK, he knows that some of Hollywood's who's who will twist arms to get seats too. And that's a good thing, he said recently -- good for them to see "real acting." That was a joke, of course. Wasn't it?

"I think so," Sir Ian McKellen said.

paul.lieberman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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