Ian McKellen: National Theatre ‘should bring back rep’

Ian McKellen. Photo: magicinfoto/Shutterstock Ian McKellen. Photo: magicinfoto/Shutterstock
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Ian McKellen has urged the National Theatre to bring back a resident company of actors, declaring it “a great shame” that the venue lacks a repertory model.

His remarks come less than a week after Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre announced it would bring back repertory productions after 25 years.

Speaking exclusively to The Stage, McKellen said he was “desolate” that so few theatres now hosted a full-time company – and welcomed the Everyman’s return to rep.

“I’m delighted, that’s wonderful news. They produced so many great actors and directors,” he said.

Describing himself as a “great advocate of companies”, he went on: “I think it’s a great shame that the National Theatre, which has enough money to do it, doesn’t have, at the centre of its work, a company that stays together for a period of time.”

It’s been 16 years since the NT last hosted a resident group of actors, when then-artistic director Trevor Nunn staged an ensemble season of work from 1999 through to 2000.

McKellen admitted that some actors “don’t want to be in the same situation for a long time”, but said: “If I were coming out of drama school and had the chance for a three-year apprenticeship at the National with a group of experienced actors, I would think, ‘That’s better than hanging around waiting for a Hollywood movie’.”

He also suggested that if the Everyman’s rep company was successful, other regional theatres may follow suit.

“It’ll probably depend on the finances, and whether business goes up – if they can pay for it and audiences come to it, others may say hurrah. And of course once you do [get a resident company] you can get rid of the casting department. You don’t need one. You can save a bit of money there,” he said.

McKellen spent much of his early career working in rep companies, appearing in 16 plays for Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. From 1965 he was a member of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company, and was later a member of Prospect Theatre Company when it was based at the Old Vic – then the home of the NT – in the 1970s.

Since Prospect disbanded in 1981, the NT has largely steered clear of hiring a company of actors for more than one production, with Nunn’s 1999 ensemble season a notable exception.

McKellen was speaking to The Stage at the launch of his new iPad app, which allows users to read the script of The Tempest while actors, including McKellen, read the lines aloud.

The NT declined to comment.