Ian McKellen delivers a speech

This posting is something of a pairing with its predecessor, and what a pairing! Mind you: the illustrious Sirs, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, are good friends and it’s by no means the first time they have been paired.

Before I devote my almost undivided attention to Sir Ian allow me to continue briefly with the pairing theme by making some observations comparing style. While Sir Patrick strode immaculately into the Oxford Union straight to a lectern placed downstage centre on the platform, there to stand in his own pool of light and command the hall, Sir Ian shambled in, exuding buckets of bonhomie, looking like an unmade bed, turned the wrong way when reaching the aisle, greeting members of the audience like old friends before turning to the platform to embrace the Union President with a bear hug. Then instead of occupying the platform he strode up and down the aisle releasing a stream of consciousness which rather gave the impression of being random, but was actually carefully structured.

There’s theatre for you! When it comes to treatment, there’s no such thing as right or wrong. All that matters is whether you can make it work. And of course they can: these guys know what they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean they can make a speech. Frighteningly few actors can do that well.

There’s one thing that I hammer into the heads of all my trainees. The most engaging, compelling, persuasive person you can be is you. Not a persona, but the real you. It sounds easy, but, as Oscar Wilde observed –

To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.

The difficulty is that we all have different masks that we don under different circumstances; and knowing which of them is a genuine part of the real you is quite tricky. Is this man we are watching the Ian McKellen that opens his eyes first thing in the morning? Very unlikely, but still I reckon it’s real. That’s why we want to listen.

Another lovely voice used flawlessly, and there’s also something to be learned from it. Unlike the audience, we can wind back and listen again to sections, ignoring what he says but analysing how he says it. How surprised are you to hear how, unlike those who make themselves sound phoney by over-enunciating as if every word came individually wrapped, he seems to slither around in an apparently slovenly fashion – and yet everything is heard with crystal clarity? That’s what proper voice coaching does for you.

In passing, I wonder whether he (and Sir Patrick) might have had the same voice coach as I. I’m just a handful of years younger than they and as a National Theatre Player in the mid sixties my voice was bashed into shape by a legend, a merciless darling called Kate Fleming.

Sir Ian kicks off by reading from a tablet a series of things that he claims have been written about him on the internet. I neither know nor care whether they are genuine: they are very funny. At one point he loses his place and there’s quite a long pause while he scrolls around, hunting the next thing he wants to read. It couldn’t matter less: he can hold this audience till Godot arrives.

That section over, he loses the tablet, and just talks. For a time he discusses some of his recent work, pointing out that the beard is for King Lear whose run might not yet be over, and then moves on into his principal non-theatre preoccupation. He tells us of his work visiting schools to discuss sexual orientation. That could get very ‘worthy’ but it doesn’t. It’s a bit like the deceptive skill that underpins his diction. By putting everything across like a favourite, absent-minded uncle, seeming to meander hither and yon but actually staying acutely focussed, he makes you want to listen. And much of it is very funny.

That’s a bloody good speech.

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