“Murder While I Smile…” Back in 1996, Sir Ian McKellen starred in a vivid, outrageous and visceral screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In this classic archive interview, film critic Robin Askew finds the acting legend on fiery, yet thoughtful, form.

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Ian McKellen pulls himself up in his chair and fixes me with the steely glare that generally precedes murder most foul in his extraordinary performance as the eponymous hunchbacked schemer in Richard Loncraine’s visually stunning Richard III. “Let me throw back the challenge,” he demands. “What’s that line about?”

The line in question is “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” – one of two that even those of us who nodded off in Eng Lit lessons will recognise from the play (the other being “Now is the winter of our discontent…”). McKellen’s daring screenplay, developed from Richard Eyre’s stage adaptation, strips away more than 40 extraneous characters, prunes two-and-a-half hours from the play’s usual running time, and commits the ultimate sacrilege of tidying up the Bard’s archaisms. No ‘thees’, ‘thous’ or ‘withals’ here.

But Richard’s desperate boost to the equine exchange rate remains jarringly unaltered in the vivid alternate ’30s England setting, striking the only real false note. He’s sitting in a jeep at the time, f’chrissakes. McKellen is not persuaded that a mechanic might have been more use. “I think people now understand that what that line is about is a man who is desperately trying to get back into the battle and can’t because of the situation he’s in,” he insists. “I think our version’s as good as any other.”

McKellen and Loncraine are holding court at Bristol’s Marriott Hotel as part of a gruelling regional press tour to promote this most accessible of Shakespeare adaptations. They’ve already done Birmingham today and are dashing off shortly to attend a specially-arranged schools’ screening. McKellen has thoughtfully bashed out answers to the six most commonly asked questions about the film (“Why does Richard III talk to the camera?” “Has cinema always been important to you?” and so on), but even these cannot anticipate the demands of newspaper hacks charged with uncovering a Local Angle. No, he corrects the poor woman from the Evening Post who hasn’t seen the film, he has never played in anything at the Old Vic, and since he’s only spending four hours in Bristol he cannot offer an opinion on our lovely city.

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They make an odd couple, Loncraine and McKellen. The latter’s a famously gay theatrical knight whose stage career has been conspicuously more successful than his screen one. The former’s remarkable career began in the swinging ’60s when he marketed such groovy executive toys as the money-spinning Newton’s Cradle. He then graduated to Tomorrow’s World, where he made a further 70 short films about fab gadgets that would revolutionise our way of living forever, but somehow failed to materialise in the corner shop. His directorial debut was Slade in Flame, and he now admits to making films only “when someone is foolhardy enough to give one to me”. His day job is in the lucrative world of commercials. It is Loncraine we have to thank for Bob Hoskins’ “It’s good to talk” and the supremely irritating ‘Papa and Nicole’.

He also admits to a lifelong loathing of Shakespeare, of which he has only now been cured. “I think there are millions of people out there like me who were taught Shakespeare rather badly at school and weren’t allowed to laugh at the funny bits or get horny at the sexy bits,” he explains. “And so I ignored it. And it took me a long while to realise that it was me who was at fault. Shakespeare is the most accessible writer if you approach him correctly for a modern audience.”

You’d have thought this meeting of the minds would result in some almighty arguments on set. “The first day of rehearsals, you’d got Ian, Maggie Smith, Robert Downey Jr., Annette Bening, Nigel Hawthorne… the list of people was quite intimidating,” admits Loncraine candidly. “For me, the great danger as director was that the actors wouldn’t look at me – they’d look at Ian to see whether he approved. And that would have been a disaster because Ian wasn’t directing the movie. So Ian and I used to have arguments, but we’d have them in front of everybody else. It was the only way for people to see that I was strong enough – if that’s the word – to disagree with Ian.”

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“Richard was constantly asking me questions about Shakespeare and challenging me to come up with credible answers,” adds McKellen, who has played Richard III more than 300 times on stage. “And if I couldn’t convince him, then he would win the argument. And he was constantly introducing me to ways of telling a story visually and cinematically, which I wasn’t going to resist because that’s what we both wanted. Anyone who thinks they’re coming to see the play should be disabused of that. The play belongs in the theatre.”

One aspect of the play which very quickly gave way to more cinematic sensibilities was Richard’s dramatic demise in the climactic battle. “We always knew there was going to be a battle because that’s what Shakespeare gave us,” explains Loncraine. “But he didn’t kill Richard on stage. The guy walks off and someone else walks on and says, ‘The king is dead. Long live the king.’ Well, you couldn’t do that to a cinema audience or they’d rip the seats out. Richard had to die on screen.”

Both men resist any attempts to draw parallels between their militaristic ’30s stylings and Nazi Germany. “It looks like Nazi imagery, but actually it’s only red and black,” points out the director. “The helmets are 1962 NATO helmets and the characters wear Greek uniforms from the 1980s that we fiddled with.”

Indeed, the film’s lavish set design and imaginative use of locations are what lend it such a distinctive flavour. McKellen stresses that “this is an English play about English characters with English characteristics” and it exasperates him that the idea of an alternate ’30s England riven by civil war still confuses some of the film’s critics.

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“The ’30s is perhaps the most recent period of our history when someone from within the ranks of the establishment might have taken over, when dictatorship and tyranny were in the air all over the rest of Europe. The first review we got was not from a drama critic but from a political correspondent in a right-wing newspaper, who said: ‘Here they go again, these lefties’ – ‘lefty luvvies’, I think we were called – ‘rubbishing the right wing. Why can’t they set Richard III in Soviet Russia rather than Germany?’ And you think, well, did he see the film. What on earth’s he talking about?”

It was during a Radio 3 debate with vehemently anti-gay Tory hack Peregrine Worsthorne that McKellen first ‘came out’. He subsequently became the first openly homosexual actor to accept a knighthood, in the face of bitter opposition from fellow activist Derek Jarman. His next project takes him to Hollywood, where he’s to star in Bryan (The Usual Suspects) Singer’s big-budget adaptation of Apt Pupil – a story from Different Seasons, the Stephen King collection that also yielded The Shawshank Redemption. Given that Tinseltown has been described as the world’s biggest closet, what do they make of him over there?

“Yeah, well, that’s a simple question with a long answer really,” he says after a pause. “It’s currently as difficult to be openly gay if you’re an actor in Hollywood as it was a couple of generations ago to be openly Jewish. Because you had to change your name and disguise the fact that you were Jewish. Under McCarthy, you had to disguise what your politics were. At the moment, it’s thought that you have to disguise the fact that you’re gay. Not if you’re an executive. Not if you’re a manager, a writer or a musician. That’s thought to be all right. But if you’re an actor, it’s thought to be death.”

The furrowed brow of concentration gives way to a broad grin. “So it gives me the greatest of pleasure to arrive in Hollywood on public occasions and talk about being gay because, in fact, nobody gives a damn. I can see the difference between the stage I’m at in my career and someone who’s starting out and trying to be a heterosexual sex symbol. But we’ll have to wait and see what happens. Some young man or woman will come out and be honest about themselves and maybe the whole thing will change overnight.

“When I played in And the Band Plays On, which was only three years ago, they couldn’t find an American actor who was prepared to play a gay character – whether he himself was gay or not. This was before Philadelphia and Tom Hanks. So they cast an actor who was 20 years too old for the part, the wrong nationality and didn’t even look like the man I was supposed to be playing. It was crazy. But Hollywood doesn’t hold the mirror up to nature. It holds up a distorting mirror – the world as they would like it to be.”

This feature originally appeared in Venue Magazine. Richard III was released on 26 April 1996. Shamefully, the film is not currently available on DVD. Second-hand copies of the deleted UK release regularly sell for £30 on eBay. Beware of European imports which have non-removable subtitles.

Yes, it’s here at last! The long-awaited Shakespeare Magazine Issue 13 has finally arrived – and world-renowned King Lear superstar Ian McKellen is our latest cover artist!

Issue 13 Cover
The great man talks about the challenges of playing King Lear, while Fiona Shaw explains Katherine from The Taming of the Shrew and Patrick Stewart discusses Shylock from The Merchant of Venice.

Also this issue, we look at the TV series that portrayed Shakespeare as a punk, and we delve into the sometimes horrific medical treatments of Shakespeare’s day.

Graham Holderness tells us about The Faith of William Shakespeare, while Jem Bloomfield investigates Shakespeare and the Psalms Mystery.

We also have excellent interviews with Sam White of Shakespeare in Detroit and Mya Gosling of Good Tickle Brain.

Not forgetting our round-up of recent Shakespeare Books and our essential guide to Studying Shakespeare!

From the vaults: “A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest with top-notch performances…” Film critic Robin Askew’s 1996 review of Richard Loncraine’s Richard III, which unforgettably starred Ian McKellen

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Opening with an action scene strongly reminscent of one of the more audacious stunts in Goldeneye and climaxing in a style that owes more to Terminator 2 than any of those stilted school stage productions which are the closest most of us get to the Bard, Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s reworking of Richard Eyre’s daring stage adaptation is clearly not for the Shakespeare purist. That said, it’s not a crass attempt to bring Richard III to “the kids”, either; rather a bold and inspired reimagining of the play’s universal themes in a handsomely staged civil war-torn alternate-world England of the 1930s.

McKellen is a hypnotically watchable, oily, scheming Richard, cursed by physical deformity but unstintingly ruthless in his pursuit of power in this jazz age Albion awash with the sinister trappings of fascism. Following the death of the King and the accession of his elder brother Edward, Richard’s blood-spattered path to the throne becomes clear. First he must seduce and marry Lady Anne (Kristin Scott Thomas) – here reduced to a pitiful junkie with needle tracks up her arms – whose husband he slaughtered during the Civil War.

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Then, with the aid of the greedy Duke of Buckingham (Jim Broadbent) and his faithful assassin James Tyrell (Adrian Dunbar), this brilliant, twisted strategist sets about removing every obstacle in his way, from his brothers King Edward (John Wood) and the gentle Clarence (Nigel Hawthorne) to Earl Rivers (Robert Downey Jr), brother of the widowed Queen Elizabeth (Annette Bening), who meets his end in a particularly grisly manifestation of coitus interruptus.

A visually stunning, action-filled Bardfest, pared to just the right length, with top-notch performances from its venerable thesps, including oddly cast American Downey Jr and a suitably regal Bening, Richard III makes outstanding use of its imaginative locations, from the palace at St. Pancras Station to the final tank battle in the shadow of Battersea Power Station. McKellen contributes a performance of such lip-smacking evil – all crocodile smiles and sly asides to camera – that even a ferocious public disowning by Queen Mum Maggie Smith is barely able to deflect it for more than a heartbeat.

This review originally appeared in Venue Magazine.

Richard III (15)
UK / 1996 / 103 minutes
Director: Richard Loncraine.
Cast: Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Maggie Smith, Nigel Hawthorne, Adrian Dunbar, John Wood

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A new book demonstrates that the legendary ‘curse of Macbeth’ – as depicted in BBC2 TV drama The Dresser – is in fact a relatively modern invention

Watching the excellent adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play The Dresser on BBC2, there were many moments that tickled our Shakespearean tastebuds.

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Not least of these was when ‘Sir’ (Anthony Hopkins) inadvertently says “Macbeth” in the theatre, and a panic-stricken Norman (Ian McKellen) has to lead him through a strange theatrical ritual to negate the resulting ‘curse’.

The Dresser
Interestingly, a new book, Anecdotal Shakespeare by Paul Menzer, suggests that the infamous “curse of Macbeth” that has supposedly plagued theatres for 400 years is in fact an invented tradition – with no records of it ever being mentioned earlier than 1937!

As The Dresser is set circa 1940, however, that would make it just about historically accurate to include the so-called curse of The Scottish Play.

The Dresser
On the other hand, this vintage clip from the BBC’s Blackadder, which is set in the 18th century, although utterly hilarious, would seem to be somewhat lacking in historical verisimilitude.

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But then, as Shakespeare might have said, why let the facts get in the way of a good story – or, indeed, a great gag?

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Anecdotal Shakespeare
is out now, published by Arden Shakespeare/Bloomsbury.

(Thank you to reader Gordon Kerry for sending us the Blackadder link)