Ian McKellen (as Falstaff) & Toheeb Jimoh (as Prince Harry) in Player Kings. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Sir Ian McKellen: Exclusive Interview

We know him as a host of unforgettable characters – from Gandalf in Lord of the Rings to Magneto in X-Men – and on stage there are few major roles that he has not brought to life in his own inimitable way. Falstaff, however, has not been on his acting biography, until now. Emma Clegg catches up with Sir Ian McKellen ahead of the production of Player Kings at the Bristol Hippodrome

Bringing together Shakespeare’s two great history plays (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2), Player Kings, currently running at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, visits the Bristol Hippodrome from 3-6 July. The three hour and 20 minute reimagined modern-dress production is adapted and directed by award-winning writer and theatre director Robert Icke. The star and antihero of these plays is Falstaff, and the role in this version has been taken on by stage and screen legend Sir Ian McKellen.

McKellen, who is 85, says that he has deliberately never taken on Falstaff before, and for good reason: “Academics often write about Falstaff; they are very intrigued by him, and through the generations Falstaff has been a huge success with audiences – he’s part of the culture really.

“And yet when you come to look at him he’s a complicated fellow and certainly not just a jolly Santa Claus type of rascal. He’s dangerous – he can be violent emotionally and physically, he’s a liar, a hypocrite, he lets people down badly, and yet audiences like him. I couldn’t ever quite land on what it was that kept him going – and I must say I was right to be doubtful because it’s a very difficult part. I’ve talked to others who have played Falstaff, and they said the same. The late, great Mike Gambon said ‘o me, ‘Ah, I didn’t understand a word’, so I’m not alone in thinking it’s a tricky part.”

Of all the companies, the one everyone wanted to go to was Bristol… the standard was recognised as being as high as you could get

McKellen compares Falstaff to Shakespeare’s other tragic characters: “In the other great parts like Macbeth and Coriolanus and Iago in Othello, the characters are very clear, they look after themselves really, but Falstaff, mmm, complicated. But I’m getting there and I think that by the time we reach Bristol I might have something to show you!”

We like the idea that the production is being finessed especially for Bristol, and the city scores high in McKellen’s estimation: “When I was starting out as a lad I wanted to go to a repertory company. Of all the companies, the one everyone wanted to go to was Bristol. It’s partly because of the theatre itself and its history, but the standard was recognised as being as high as you could get.”

Perry Williams (Page, Douglas, Thomas), Clare Perkins (Mistress Quickly) & Ian McKellen (Falstaff). Credit: Manuel Harlan

Finding Falstaff

If Falstaff is a tricky character to unravel, what has been the process of getting inside the role? McKellen explains, “Rob Icke spoke to me very clearly about what he thought the part was like – he kept saying that this is a character out of The Sopranos. He saw the role as someone who was not just jolly, but dangerous – you couldn’t quite be certain what he was going to do next. This made him an attractive figure for Prince Hal to be spending time with, but he was the last person to be training up a young man to take over the monarchy when the time came.”

Past stage and screen productions have featured great names as Falstaff, including Antony Quayle (1951), Hugh Griffith (1964), David Warner (2008), Robert Stephens (1991), and Antony Sher (2014). On screen roles include Laurence Olivier (1944), Orson Welles (1965), Robbie Coltrane (1989), and Simon Russell Beale (2012). Did these offer any inspiration?

“You have to be careful about doing that, because as an actor you have to get inside the character, and the character ideally has to get inside you. Simon Callow has written two books on Falstaff – he played him, and he’s analysed every scene. And it’s very interesting to read but you have to think, ‘hang on, this is not Shakespeare’s Falstaff I’m reading – this is Simon Callow’s reaction to Falstaff’, so in the end you don’t really want to go digging into what somebody else did and instead work it all out for yourself”, says McKellen.

“Falstaff is a tragic comic character and our approach has been to look at him and believe in him as a real person. If the audience finds that funny in parts, terrific. If they are moved, equally great. I’m just showing them what I’ve discovered about Falstaff and they can react as they will. I feel that I have been inside Falstaff when I’ve been rehearsing but I haven’t quite let him take me over yet. You always hope that by the last performance you’ve got it as right as you possibly can.”

Ian McKellen as Falstaff on stage with the cast of Player Kings. Credit: Manuel Harlan

Mutual admiration

McKellen speaks highly of his supporting cast, particularly of Toheeb Jimoh as Prince Hal. “The central character really in the play is the young Prince Hal, played by an amazing young actor who I didn’t know before, from Ted Lasso, and I think he’s going to be a major theatre actor. He did a wonderful Romeo in London a couple of years ago and now he’s doing Prince Hal, and next stop Hamlet, I would think. He’s pulled between the relationship with his own father the king, and with this other father figure, Falstaff, who he meets in the East End of London. But he shouldn’t be bothering with Falstaff – he is not a good influence.

“TJ (Toheeb Jimoh), our Hal, and I get on very well as friends and I’d say he knows a little bit about what I’ve been up to and I know a little bit about what I hope he’s going to be up to. We have got a mutual admiration going, and to be friends with Hal is a good thing if you are playing Falstaff. I’ve always thought that one of the most wonderful things about being an actor is that you work with people with such wide experience, older than you and younger than you, and yet when it comes to the rehearsals on stage you are all equal – although it’s true I’m in dressing room No. 1!

Falstaff is known for his physical size, so for this production McKellen sports a fat suit. “That is the first thing people say about Falstaff in the play, that he’s grossly overweight, and they go on and on about it in a way that today would be thought unthinking and unkind. But when the play was written, to be fat was something very unusual because their diet wasn’t as generous as it is in the 21st century. He clearly was a glutton.”

There is laughter and tragedy within Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, and also in Player Kings. There’s a moment during the Battle of Shrewsbury where Falstaff has been playing dead (to save his skin), and suddenly resurrects himself, which gets a big laugh. “There are so many laughs in this show, I hadn’t realised when we were rehearsing it. And that’s been fun to do,” says McKellen.

Spoils of war

However he also comments on the portrayal of war: “In the middle of the play there is a civil war on stage and I’ve never seen a battle so immediate and dangerous as Rob has created. When we are seeing on the news nightly what is going on in Ukraine or Gaza, we don’t experience the battlefield. The war is a serious matter in the play and in the middle of it, striding around the battle field, robbing the corpses, avoiding the danger whenever he can, recruiting quite inadequate soldiers all of whom die under his command, is Falstaff, and you wonder, ‘is this what it’s like in the real world?’ And when Falstaff cries out to the audience in the middle of the battlefield, ‘Give me life!’ You think ‘there must be some people wandering about Gaza shouting the same at the destroyed buildings’. That’s why we like Falstaff, he’s on the side of life, of survival.”

On Shakespeare

Given that McKellen has featured as the hero within many Shakespearean productions, I wonder if Shakespeare feels like someone that the actor knows well. “I like the idea that the most celebrated person in Britain who ever lived was not a monarch or a prime minister or a politician or a solider, he was an actor who wrote plays. I don’t know his ghost, I don’t talk to him late at night, but I like the idea that I am in the same line of business and have the same concerns. I do have a sort of personal relationship in that I want to do my best for him, because he deserves the best, he was the best.

“And of course Shakespeare is still very much alive in his work – think about the emotional content of Player Kings – it’s about a young prince called Harry who falls out with his father and the whole system of the royal court. I’m not saying that our play is actually about the current Prince Harry, but I’m just pointing out that these aren’t just old stories, they are relevant and the relationship between father and son and the other relationships in the play, they all ring very true. We are all living in a Shakespeare play, whether we know it for not.”

Player Kings, 3-6 July at Bristol Hippodrome; atgtickets.com/bristol