From Jersey to Orkney, Ian McKellen has covered the length and breadth of the UK during his year-long, 80-date tour. It has been an extraordinary act of generosity and a memento mori to a theatre ecosystem that has changed, perhaps irreversibly.
Having put in the hard miles, McKellen has earned the right to speak about the state of theatre outside London. He did so last Sunday at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
“When I started acting, every major city and town had its own local, subsidised theatre and these repertory companies trained me and my contemporaries,” he said, bemoaning their loss. “Our commercial productions used to tour before they reached London, and, if successful, after their West End runs.”
He then issued a rallying cry to “actors, stage managements, producers, directors and new playwrights [to] agree, even insist, on working up and down the country for our own benefit and for that of regional audiences.”
He’s not the first to make this observation. Speaking to The Stage in 2015, David Suchet said: “Actors should tour. That’s what we were born to do – to be travelling players. When you reach a certain level, which I have reached and I have an audience who wants to see me, what a conceit it would be to say: ‘I don’t tour, people must come to the West End.’”
Both McKellen and Suchet are concerned about the waning of star-led classical drama. At one point this formed the backbone of the touring circuit but it has all but disappeared in recent decades. There are many reasons: the network of suitable theatres has shrunk and the economics of touring have become harder. Meanwhile, screen opportunities have mushroomed, as has the London theatre sector – both in the West End and beyond.
Whereas McKellen and Suchet have balanced stage and screen careers, the next generation of stars are tied into exclusive deals with streaming services or, if not, are advised against long theatre commitments in case one comes along. Even if they focus on theatre, there are enough opportunities in London for some to never have to look beyond the M25. McKellen is also right to say that our national companies tour less than they once did.
Some might argue that tastes have changed. But McKellen’s tour shows there is still a public appetite to see classical actors on stages across the UK. If theatre cares about keeping that flame alive, then – as McKellen says – it will require a concerted effort and more names to follow his lead.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith