Q&A: Sir Ian McKellen & review of Heuristic Shakespeare app

WHERE: BFI

WHEN: 28/4

Without his leading role in the film Richard III, which he also co-wrote, Sir Ian McKellen doubts whether he would ever have been cast as Gandalf and Magneto in the Lord Of the Rings and X-Men films respectively.

  • Read on for a review of Sir Ian’s new Heuristic Shakespeare app

The observation is made in a short film before an audience at the BFI in London is shown the 1996 version of Richard III, which is simultaneously being screened at 70 cinemas nationwide, and McKellen and director Richard Loncraine complete a Q&A.

The actor wrote, produced and starred in the film which also features Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Robert Downey Jr, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Hawthorne and a young Dominic West in his first celluloid role.

McKellen’s portrayal of the tyrannical king, set in 1930s England, was his first leading role on the big screen. The BFI audience laughs with him as he breaks the fourth wall to address them during the film, evoking memories of Kevin Spacey’s tour de force portrayal of a US president in Netflix’s House Of Cards.

In the Q&A after the film, the Oscar nominee reveals the one question he would like to ask Shakespeare.

‘I would ask Shakespeare: ‘Did you write the plays?’ And of course he would say yes.’

McKellen describes the play, which he had been performing at the National Theatre before filming, as ‘very wordy’ and that about a quarter of the text remains in his version.

Loncraine recalls visiting McKellen at his home and telling him he thought his original Richard III script was ‘too proscenium-arched’. ‘I’m amazed he didn’t throw me out,’ remembers Loncraine. ‘Instead he asked me what we could do to fix it.’

Loncraine came to Shakespeare late after being taught it ‘very badly’. McKellen is pleased with the 1930s setting of the film because it makes clear who is who because the royal family, religious and military characters all have their own uniform which wouldn’t have been the case in Shakespeare’s time.

Loncraine details the financial struggles of making the film, saying: ‘Three weeks in we went bankrupt and Ian and I put in our own money. We started out knowing we couldn’t get through the movie but we thought a Hollywood studio would cover us.

‘Three weeks in we ran out of money and the studio head went berserk to the producers when we asked for more money.’

McKellen adds: ‘Neither of us made a penny from it, we gave all our salaries to make it and I’m very proud of it.’

An alternative ending was filmed where Richard III, who has seduced so many around him, reaches out to pull the audience with him into the flames of hell but Loncraine says it didn’t work and wasn’t included.

APP REVIEW: Heuristic Shakespeare: The Tempest (£4.99 available here)

WORTH A LOOK?: *****

Loncraine blames his teachers (above) for failing to spark a love for Shakespeare in him but for us it was just that we didn’t have the life experience at school age to appreciate the themes of his work and the beauty with which they are expressed.

How we wished we’d had an app like this (available for Apple iPad) when we were at school which truly allows for an immersive experience in the text.

A cast including McKellen as Prospero, Sir Derek Jacobi as Gonzalo and the terrific Frances Barber as Iris, features in video at the top of the screen as the app scrolls through the written text below as it is spoken, with notes to explain meaning not immediately obvious.

It’s a tremendously simple yet effective idea which allows the eye to make sense of the text as the words are being heard – with the added bonus of the cast being seen also.

There are plans for more such apps delving further into the Bard’s library of 37 plays – and we can’t wait for them.

  • Picture courtesy BFI. BFI events details here.
  • Enjoyed this Q&A and app review? Follow its author on Twitter @NeilDurham

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