Ian McKellen on Stage

Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.

And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.

There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.

A Hard Act to Follow

A Hard Act to Follow

When Liam planned our ‘jolly’ down memory lane, he wasn’t to know it would be the hottest May Day holiday on record. The Sun puts a smile on everyone’s face, doesn’t it? And we smiled our way round Bankside, my favourite district of London. Back when the first Elizabeth was on the throne, old Southwark was a riot of licentiousness – playhouses, brothels and taverns – beyond the jurisdiction of the City of London’s buttoned-up elders who wagged their fingers from the other side of the Thames. This is where Will Shakespeare plied his trade among the players, the prostitutes and the drunks. That’s my kind of town.

Not that there are many ne’er-do-wells milling around these days. The area has cleaned up its act and is now home to over-priced flats, over-priced eateries, over-priced bars, world-class modern art and a working replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It certainly pulls in the crowds.

I went all thespian and began to recite the only lines I could remember from my part in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1976…

You, ladies, you, whose gentle hearts do fear

The smallest monstrous mouse that creeps on floor,

May now perchance both quake and tremble here,

When lion rough in wildest rage doth roar.

And roar I did, when Snug the Joiner became the lion in a rabbit costume smelling of mothballs and accessorised with an improvised mane. Times were hard in the seventies.

Liam decided my hammy Shakespeare was putting off the tourists and bundled me onto a riverboat and took me to a different kind of theatrical show – a little fairy dusting of trad drag.

street-entertainment.jpg

It was an eventful afternoon made all the more eventful by the delightful boys from the Abbey Rugby Club in Reading. They were on a ‘Monopoly board tour’ and had landed on Trafalgar Square for a queer beer. Well fancy that. And I did.

If Music be the Food of Love

If Music be the Food of Love

Norwich Cathedral Cloister

In an attempt to develop this old Philistine’s cultural palate, Liam dragged me along to Norwich Cathedral for a bit of drag from the Bard. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an open-air theatre company, brought their production of ‘Twelfth Night’ to the divine (forgive the pun) Gothic cloisters of the Norman edifice. Billy Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy of mistaken identities was a big hit with the picnicking crowd. It went down well with us too, along with a bottle of Merlot. Sadly, the show wasn’t quite so popular with the famous pair of peregrine falcons roosting in the cathedral spire. Clearly pissed off about being upstaged, they squawked through the entire performance.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are noted for bringing a touch of Tudor authenticity to their gigs and this was no exception. I knew the Bard could be bawdy but I never knew he could be so camp. This was a delicious cross between ‘Life of Brian’ and John Inman in ‘Are You Being Served?’

Every one of Shakespeare’s works has its famous lines and Twelfth Night is no different…

If music be the food of love, play on.

Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

Not bad for the ‘Carry On Camping’ of its day, eh?