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Ian McKellen and the evolution of his 'Lear'

English actor toured 18 months as Shakespeare's tragic king. PBS airs the play tonight.

March 25, 2009|Susan King

Ian McKellen raised more than a few eyebrows when he went the full Monty as "King Lear" on a worldwide tour. But in PBS' "Great Performances" adaptation airing tonight on KCET, McKellen barely shows off his backside. "PBS has its rules," he said with a sigh.

"It's all right to see someone have their eyes gouged out, but it's not right to see an old man with his trousers down."

Though he was fighting a bad case of jet lag, McKellen, 69, put on the charm during a recent visit to Los Angeles. Ensconced in a suite at the Chateau Marmont, the acclaimed actor wore blue jeans and a sweater.

Best known as the wise Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the villain Magneto in the "X-Men" films, McKellen performed in the Royal Shakespeare Company's version of the tragedy two years ago at UCLA's Royce Hall. Considered one of the Bard's greatest plays, "King Lear" revolves around an elderly, powerful king who retires from the throne and divides his kingdom among his three daughters, offering the largest share to the one who loves him best. As the daughters show their true colors, Lear descends into madness.

The actor had appeared in other roles in two previous productions of "King Lear" onstage in England. But he never had a burning ambition to play the lead.

"I had seen how much it took out of people, and then I turned out to be right, it's dreadful," he said. "But it certainly helps if you have done a lot of Shakespeare. You find a lot of people doing 'Hamlet' who haven't done much Shakespeare, but with 'Lear,' on the whole, it's people who have been training throughout their careers."

He is glad he did it. "It takes a lot out of you, but it's very rewarding, and having done it I wouldn't mind doing it again. I think there's further to go."

And during the 18-month tour, McKellen's performance changed. "Quite a long time ago, I realized what I most enjoyed doing was not repeating myself, which is when acting gets very boring," he said.

"The point of live theater is that you are genuinely doing it for the audience and just them. Never mind what we did last night. You're keeping yourself free and open and ready within the scope of the production, obviously you can change how far you go in a scene, whether loud or quiet."

McKellen joins a list of stellar actors -- including Christopher Plummer, Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Orson Welles and Kevin Kline -- who have tackled "Lear." But he maintains he was never intimidated by past Lears.

"One is so used to the idea that these parts are played regularly by other actors that it's a little bit of a relief to think I may not bring it off but I'll be in good company," he said.

"You have to be your own King Lear. There is no perfect performance. . . . If it comes off, you're lucky, and if you don't, the play still exists for others to do it."

Though "Lear" is considered a tragedy, McKellen doesn't see it that way.

"When he retires he begins to assess his life because of the way people treat him and retreats to this so-called madness and always asks questions," he said.

"He has these constant conversations with the gods. What's touching about it -- and the point of the play, I think, if you want to look at it in moral terms -- is that it's never too late to become better as a person, which he does. . . . It's a better man you see at the end of the play than at the beginning. Self-awareness is possible at any age."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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