SAN DIEGO — Casual Shakespeare sounds like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp.
But actor Ian McKellen, who tonight opens a six-day run of his one-man show "Ian McKellen Acting Shakespeare" at the Old Globe Theatre, expects his audience to relax with the Bard.
"Don't be put off by the title," McKellen warned during a one-day promotional visit last month.
"It's really a party in which the audience and I have a chance to let our hair down. I think the audience is so relieved--bless their heart--after they shell out their $20. Half the audience really have been dragged by the scruff of its neck. My job is to say, 'Come on. It's not going to be that bad.' "
McKellen, 48, is considered one of the leading English classical actors of his generation and heir apparent to the throne of Lord Laurence Olivier. He has won (several times) the major English acting awards and was named a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1979 for his services to the British theater. In this country, McKellen won a Tony Award in 1981 for his Broadway portrayal of Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus."
"Acting Shakespeare" is hardly Shakespeare as taught by your high school English teacher. It is an actor's view of the Bard.
"It's for people who think Shakespeare is not for them," said McKellen. He wondered aloud what a San Diego audience, which gets a steady diet of Shakespeare, will make of it.
"This is about the Shakespeare who was an actor himself. Maybe it will be intriguing to see a 'British' Shakespeare from an actor's point of view."
McKellen has worked for 25 years as a professional actor, primarily in the theater. He saw his first performances at an early age in his native Lancashire and was instantly intrigued.
"I was constantly meeting these people backstage," he said. "There was an excitement of watching their rather tawdry lives change as they stepped across that line in front of an audience. This show is sort of my salute" to those performers.
Educated at Cambridge, McKellen performed in undergraduate productions with the likes of David Frost, Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn, later director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
McKellen conceived "Acting Shakespeare" in 1977 when he was asked to prepare a one-man show for the Edinburgh International Festival. In it, McKellen roams through the Bard of Avon's plays, demonstrating and commenting on performance practices over the centuries, in a variety of roles from Romeo to Macbeth to Prospero. His performance, which was nominated for a Tony Award, has been filmed by PBS.
McKellen is not limited to Shakespeare. He has also done his share of plays by Marlowe, Jonson, Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov, as well as works by more contemporary playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and Martin Sherman. He was in the London world premiere of Sherman's "Bent," about Nazi oppression of homosexuals.
Although McKellen has made a few movies, such as "The Keep," "Priest of Love," and "Plenty" with John Gielgud and Meryl Streep," he has yet to make any lasting connections with Hollywood.
"I'm desperate to do movies," he said. This is his second year devoted largely to saying "I'm free and available" and the effort is beginning to pay off. He will soon be filming a miniseries with Jacklyn Smith and Robert Wagner. "The next time I'll be playing the leading role," McKellen said.
Would McKellen, who has worked on Broadway and in Los Angeles, most recently in "Wild Honey," consider working in U.S. regional theaters?
"I once asked Joseph Papp to do some Shakespeare in the (Central) Park," McKellen said. "The idea of presenting it free intrigued me." But Papp refused to employ him. He told McKellen, " 'No, you're an English actor. The Shakespeare I'm doing is American Shakespeare, not English.'
"British people have no special knowledge of how to do Shakespeare. We just know how to do it for us. Unless a director had a very specific idea of how to use a foreigner--Othello would be a good idea, or, I suppose, Shylock--(working with an American company) might not work."
McKellen comes from a school of Shakespeare that puts the text above directorial concepts.
"The difficult thing with Shakespeare is not to have a concept," he said. "The easy way is to say, 'Oh, we'll do it in silver lame or set it in Mexico or update it.' "
"Shakespeare's magic is not visual but in the words. The difficulty of doing Shakespeare is realizing the potential. The lines are just weighted down with fruit. It's a bottomless mine in which the jewels can always be found shining. The attraction for the actor is to get out the pick and shovel. It's hard work."
In "Acting Shakespeare," McKellen hopes he can help reveal what Shakespeare, the actor, was trying to say.
"We're all acting," McKellen said. "It's in our nature . . .. " He then quoted Macbeth's "to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" speech, ending:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
"He's saying life is like being an actor. You go off the stage and people don't know you. That's what dying is like. You die, and nobody gives a (damn)."
McKellen's one-man show also has its lighter side, with him mimicking some of the great actors of this and other centuries. Mostly, he said, it's his personal effort as an actor to introduce a fellow actor to new audiences.
"I've had a longtime desire to be a stand-up comedian. In this show I sort of stand up on my own. Of course, I don't really stand up on my own. I have Shakespeare. He's the guest of honor."