McKellen and Msamati among actors to revive famous speeches for London’s Almeida Theatre

Ian McKellen and Lucian Msamati. Photos: Pamela Raith/Cameron Slater
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Ian McKellen and Lucian Msamati are among actors who will read some of the most famous speeches in history as part of a new project by London’s Almeida Theatre.

Figures of Speech is a digital film project that aims to explore rhetoric and ideas of leadership. Every day from May 8 to 12 a new video will be released on a dedicated website.

McKellen will deliver a speech by American politician Harvey Milk, who campaigned for gay rights in the US in the 1970s, and Msamati will read a speech given by Nelson Mandela at the trial at which he was convicted and imprisoned for 27 years.

The words of Aids activist Elizabeth Glaser will be read by Nicola Walker, a Virginia Woolf speech by Fiona Shaw, while Ashley Walters will perform a speech by former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold told The Stage that the idea began after the referendum vote to leave the European Union and while Barack Obama was preparing to leave office as US president.

He said: “I found Obama’s Reverend Pinckney eulogy, where he sings Amazing Grace, incredibly powerful as a piece of theatre. I thought, ‘We’d be losing this great rhetorician, whoever gets in at the end of the year, whether it’s Hillary or Donald Trump.’ We thought, ‘What as a theatre is our responsibility, what do we offer? Maybe we could do something useful and interesting by resurrecting exemplary pieces of rhetoric using our family of actors.’”

Goold continued: “The idea of personality in politics had become synonymous with duplicity, like acting. The two people who were exemplary in the British culture were Boris Johnson and Tony Blair. Boris, arguably, took us out of Europe through force of personality and Blair took us to war through force of personality.

“It felt like, in the aftermath of those two, the idea of someone speaking to you with passion and charisma became something that we felt was lying. That felt really dangerous and wrong, because actually in our viral age, and, as Shakespeare knows, there is nothing more powerful than someone on a stage speaking to you with passion. We wanted to reclaim that a bit.”

As well as the five films across this week, further films will be released later in the year. The website will also include material exploring the speeches and their historical contexts alongside reactions from actors and local communities that have direct connections with each speech.

Young people aged 15 to 25 have also been invited to respond to the films and to deliver their own speeches.

Figures of Speech is the third ‘marathon theatre’ event from the Almeida, following day-long readings of the Iliad and the Odyssey in 2015.