Long before the world came to know him as
Gandalf, Ian McKellen was already established as a giant of British theatre and
a Shakespearean actor par excellence.
In fact, it was his “Richard III” on screen that heralded the actor’s belated
impact on a medium where he’s now instantly recognizable.
These dual aspects of his CV make McKellen the
perfect man to spearhead the British Film Institute’s immensely ambitious
Shakespeare on Film project, whose international element alone — with 18 films traveling
to 110 countries — is testimony to the universality of the Bard in the 400th
anniversary of his death.
McKellen was on hand in London today to
help launch the program, which will include 40 films and 25 events at the BFI
South Bank in April and May, the digitization of 70 films for the institute’s
streaming site BFI Player, 4K restorations of Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet”
and Kurosawa’s “Ran,” and a new film, “Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Cinema,” which compiles scenes from the best surviving silent adaptations in the BFI’s
Interestingly, the actor admitted that “the
purist in me is suspicious of anyone trying to improve on Shakespeare by taking
him away from his home territory,” namely the theatre.
“There is a tension there. What’s going to
be so illuminating about being able to see so many of these Shakespeare-inspired
films is the intriguing way in which different directors and actors cope with
the inevitable challenge of taking a very wordy method of storytelling and
making it work pictorially.
“I’ve been delving a little bit into the BFI
archive over the last few weeks, looking forward to the riches on offer. It’s changing
my mind as to whether it’s appropriate or not to put Shakespeare on film. I think
the answer to that is a resounding yes — depending on who’s doing the acting
and who’s doing the directing.”
And of course he’s done it himself, when adapting
“Richard III” for the screen, the superb, modern-day, Fascist-hued
interpretation directed by Richard Loncraine in 1995. A re-mastered version will
be simulcast in the UK on April 28, while the actor will host a bus tour of the
film’s imaginatively used London locations.
“The great joy of ‘Richard III’ for me was
that I was trying to honour Shakespeare in a cinematic way, but knowing nothing
about cinema,” he recalled. “It was wonderful that Richard Loncraine, who knows
a great deal about cinema, was there to advise and direct and hugely influence
me. I knew nothing about cinema and he knew nothing about Shakespeare, so we
were an ideal combination.”
His own favorite adaptations include Welles’s
“Chimes at Midnight,” Kurosawa’s “Ran” and “Throne of Blood,” Ralph Fiennes’s
“Coriolanus,” Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” and Julie Taymor’s “Titus Andronicus,”
with Anthony Hopkins.
He also spoke fondly of the recent “Macbeth”
with his X-Men co-star Michael Fassbender (“full of weather, full of Scotland, and
very exciting”) and Branagh’s “Hamlet,” which he cites as “breaking the spell”
for him of Olivier’s hold over filmed Shakespeare.
The program’s international tour is
taking place as part of Shakespeare Lives, the British Council’s global celebration
of the playwright’s influence on culture worldwide. Those 18 films will all be
British, with recipient countries ranging from Cuba to Russia, Azerbaijan to
Zimbabwe — and such diverse settings as the Shanghai Film Festival, MoMA in New
York and a refugee camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
Slovenia will be kicking off the
international screenings on 27 January with Olivier’s “Henry V,” Polanksi’s “Macbeth,” Derek Jarman’s “The Tempest,” and Douglas Hickox’s “Theatre of Blood.”
“For its international reach, this is the
biggest project that the BFI has ever undertaken, said the BFI’s head curator
Robin Baker. “And it’s a game changer in terms of access to British cinema
across the world.”
Baker took pleasure in
noting that Shakespeare has 1,118 writing credits on IMDb. “No other writer has
had a greater impact on cinema — or inspired more films.” We’re about to see a
lot of them.