Nowadays, we’re ever more keen to ensure that the voices of the young are heard – in politics, as much as in the arts. And rightly so. However, I want to take a moment to celebrate our elders.
A few weekends ago, I had the great privilege of seeing Ian McKellen perform his solo show on his actual 80th birthday in his hometown of Bolton. Needless to say, this was a moving experience. At 8.30pm, as we heard in the distance the Albert Halls’ clock chime above our heads, McKellen shared with the audience that this was the time he was born. The room spontaneously burst into a rendition of Happy Birthday.
McKellen held us in the palm of his hand as he moved between Shakespeare, Gerald Manley Hopkins and playing the dame. Not only was this a feat of memory, but also of stamina and scholarship. He has the constitution of an ox. I’d witnessed how his indomitability carried him through the 20 minutes of pouring rain in each performance of King Lear in the Minerva Theatre two summers ago, but this was another level. He gambolled through the auditorium to greet audience members in the interval, leapt up and off the stage with the agility of a 20-year-old, and stood with a bucket collection until 11pm as the audience filed out. We all marvelled at his seeming boundless energy and passion.
I was reminded of another actor with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working recently. Sheila Hancock – who by the way was the first woman to direct at the National Theatre’s Olivier, where she directed McKellen – is currently also performing in the Minerva. After opening night, Hancock suffered a bump to the head that required suture stitches at St Richard’s Hospital in Chichester. It was a matinee day. As her health and comfort were our primary concern, we considered our options and concluded that I would have to go on with a book to play the grandmother that afternoon.
Sheila Hancock would clearly rather stick pins in her eyes than miss a performance
Thankfully, the audience were spared that fright as Hancock emerged from A&E absolutely insistent that she would be performing that afternoon and evening. She was heard to have said to her fellow actors: “I can’t have lost more than half a pint of blood”, as if it were a trifle. She insisted on no fuss, no bother. She would clearly rather stick pins in her eyes than miss a performance.
I found myself asking, what is it about McKellen and Hancock’s generation of actors that instilled in them such strength, determination and indefatigability? Was it the weekly repertory system, which must have required staunch discipline and concentration? Was it the spirit of survival that came with living through the Second World War as children? Was it a deep love for the theatre that was born in a pre-Netflix era? Perhaps all of the above.
Whatever it is, I find myself very grateful that our acting elders seem ever ready to share their vitality with us – and grateful that we’re able to learn from their generation’s experience and values.
Daniel Evans is artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Read more of his columns at: thestage.co.uk/author/daniel-evans