Astonishing Ian McKellen news this week, as it was announced that the knight of the realm and undisputed prince of the stage is to embark on yet another Iconic Shakespeare Role, that of Sir John Falstaff.
It’s not clear how the lithe 84 year old actor will portray the famously rotund old soldier (God preserve us from fat suits), but I’m agog to find out. Hamlet, Lear, Prospero, Iago, Macbeth et al are all well and good but it’s going to be nice to see McKellen really flap his comic chops in a doublet and hose (rather than a frock and tights, in his beloved panto).
The actor has, he said, “resisted offers to play John Falstaff” in the past, but this “ingenious adaptation was irresistible”. The version in question is a trimmed down tapestry woven together from Henry IV parts one and two, by director and adapter-extraordinaire Robert Icke, called Player Kings. I have great hopes that it will cherry pick all the good bits of Falstaff while removing most of the interminable, arcane pub scenes which were clearly only included so that Shakespeare’s big-name comic actor Will Kempe could stay on stage to encourage jollity and the buying of oranges.
Anyway, it’s a thrilling prospect. McKellen is well, McKellen, and Icke’s work, from The Doctor (which recently played in New York after two successful London runs and starred Juliet Stevenson) to his Hamlet with Andrew Scott or his incredible adaptation of the Oresteia at the Almeida – one of the most captivating shows I’ve seen – is always fascinating.
And in the week of the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, of which McKellen is a co-host and which take place on Sunday at Claridges, it occurs to me that the whole enterprise is emblematic of the resilience and experimentation that characterises British theatre, and which is exemplified in the shortlist.
A one-man Vanya, with all the roles played by Scott (nominated for Best Actor), and relocated to rural Ireland, which somehow actually works, for example. Or a Sunset Boulevard, reimagined as a brilliant sort of old Hollywood movie-stage hybrid with one of the best uses of video I've seen in theatre, by one of the UK’s most exciting directing talents, Jamie Lloyd (on the Best Director list), and starring an actual Pussycat Doll (Nicole Scherzinger, in the running for Best Musical Performance). What?
And what about a musical about a compromised American televangelist (Tammy Faye, Almeida, nominated for Best Musical)? An epic play about the mildest-tempered football manager England has ever known (Dear England, National Theatre, a contender for Best Play)? Or another musical – it’s been a good year for them – set over half a century on a brutalist Sheffield housing estate (Standing at the Sky’s Edge, National and Sheffield Theatres, in for Best Musical), and another (Guys and Dolls, Bridge) that physically immerses its audience in the neon-lit underbelly of early-Thirties New York? That one’s up for a stonking five awards.
What shines through these shows and so many others is freshness and innovation. These are not staid retellings, or treadings of the same old paths. Even the seemingly straight plays that feature on the shortlist tell new stories, or old stories in new ways.
Rebecca Frecknall’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Almeida, up for Best Director, and carrying Best Actress nods for both Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan) switched a light onto a much-revived classic. It turned a play that Tennessee Williams himself said was about two sisters, into a play… about two sisters, not a woman and a man, something which I have never believed before.
The thrillingly talented Ryan Calais Cameron’s latest, stealthily traditional play Retrograde (Kiln, nominated for Best Play) was a real-time dramatisation of a pivotal moment in the life and career of the actor Sidney Poitier (played with ease and grace by Ivanno Jeremiah, surely a star of the future), asked to sign a “loyalty oath” to America and denounce his fellow performer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson, in order to cement his own casting in a role.
It was a little-known story, plausibly imagined, tightly written, that put the hard-won integrity of a man of colour – amid the maelstrom of McCarthyism and the casual and not-so-casual racism of 1950s Hollywood – centre stage. Tatenda Shamiso’s funny, frank and illuminating NO-ID at the Royal Court (up for Emerging Talent) told the performer’s story of transition with live action, video and song to bring a complex and singular process – both physical and bureaucratic – into the light.
When his version of Animal Farm was touring in 2022, Icke said that theatre is “about repeating a ritual, like a birthday. Every year it is still your birthday, but it’s a different birthday because you are a year older and maybe the people at your party are different. For me it’s always felt like a form of dishonesty to pretend that there is a way to do any play or any production as the golden version that should be set in aspic.”
This impetus, to find the new in the old and reveal truths unseen, is the backbone of London theatre. Sunday night is not just about a glitzy party (though it will be very glitzy, and I will be enjoying that immensely in my fancy frock, thank you very much) but it’s also a celebration of the will and drive among London’s theatre creatives to keep moving forward, even after a few years of absolute hell, frankly. Theatre has picked itself up, dusted itself off, and thrived. I’m going to raise a glass to that.
What the Culture Editor Did This Week
I went to a preview screening of the film, out later this month, at the IMAX, and Joaquin Phoenix is perfect (i.e. uncharming and weird) in Ridley Scott’s biopic of the monomaniacal Frenchman, which looks incredible. However, Vanessa Kirby is irritatingly underused as Josephine and there are only so many times you can watch horses and men being blown to bits. By the end I felt, much like the whole of 18th century Europe, sick of the sight of the little twerp.
National Theatre backstage tour
This sounds kinda touristy but it was genuinely fascinating. I did a slightly truncated version of it, but it was especially fun to see the vast backstage storage and the props department, and hear about how the theatre is improving sustainability, reusing sets and objects and remaking others. The full 75 minute experience would make a great gift for a theatre lover.
Speaking of theatre lovers, why not follow the Standard Theatre Podcast, with reviews, news and interviews from Nancy and the Nicks, Curtis and Clark – a new episode drops every Sunday, and this week we'll have a special episode on Monday from the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Find it here, or wherever you get your podcasts.