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McKellen: National Theatre must break free of London to represent the wider UK

Ian McKellen receives jis award for outstanding contribution to British theatre at the UK Theatre Awards 2016. Photo: Pamela Raith Ian McKellen receives his award for outstanding contribution to British theatre at the UK Theatre Awards 2016. Photo: Pamela Raith
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Ian McKellen has claimed the National Theatre will never fully represent the UK if most of its work continues to take place in London.

In a speech at the UK Theatre Awards, where he received an outstanding contribution award, McKellen said it was theatres outside the capital and across the UK that make up Britain’s ‘national theatre’.

“Of course the National Theatre company should be what it calls itself, which is national, and as long as it sits mainly in London and the South Bank, it isn’t a national theatre. That means that the rest of us are the national theatre. The national theatre of Great Britain is every single theatre combined,” he said.

McKellen described a “sense of family” among regional organisations, adding: “That is the national theatre, and it exists outside London.”

National Theatre director Rufus Norris, who took over the post in 2015, has previously spoken about his desire for the NT to work more closely with the regions.

The NT has also said that it will tour four shows regionally in 2017, and in the past 12 months has worked with 63 different theatres around the country on various projects. The NT did not respond to a request for comment from The Stage.

In his speech at the awards ceremony at London’s Guildhall, McKellen went on to talk about his “proudest” moment, when he received his Equity card.

He said rules that were part of the former ‘closed shop’ system within the union – in which only Equity members could work professionally – meant more young performers worked in the regions.

“One of the rules they made was that you could not be a full member of Equity until you had done 44 weeks’ paid work, but not in London, not on film and not on television. You had to go and work outside London,” he said.

When that system was dropped, McKellen claimed, “the notion that of course you went to work outside London, of course you went to live in a town – become part of it, contribute to it and become a citizen of it – had gone”.

Other winners at the awards included Vanessa Redgrave, who was given the Gielgud award for excellence in the dramatic arts, while Sheffield Theatres won prizes in five categories.

Read The Stage’s recent interview with Ian McKellen here

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