Notes From An Unforgettable Afternoon With Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen looks like he really enjoys being Sir Ian McKellen. During a two and a half hour one-man show in London, the legend sent electricity through the Harold Pinter Theater with his radiant joy and passion. He relished every line of dialogue he spoke, created a personable and direct dialogue with his captivated audience, and yes, he did shout, "You shall not pass!" In fact, McKellen started his traveling one-man show by reading a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring and delivering that very line; so by saying things only got better from there, you can imagine how the rest of the show was a magical experience. It was an unforgettable performance witnessing pure greatness perform right in front of your very eyes.

McKellen is performing his one-man show, Ian McKellen On Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others...and YOU! in celebration of his 80th birthday with portions of the proceeds going to various charities. The show has already raised £3 million from 80 theatres across the UK, with the money supporting theaters and artists across the country. Mostly, theatergoers can find McKellen in London at the Harold Pinter Theater, a lovely sight to the eyes. At the beginning of the show, the lights go down and the famed performer's unmistakable voice sends chills through the theater as he reads from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Hearing the actor speak a few of the most iconic lines from the series, and arguably from movie history, is a rush. Even with McKellen dressed about as far away from Middle-Earth as can be with a scarf and a blazer, hearing him say "fly, you fools!" transports the audience right back to the Shire and reeling in the joy of watching McKellen embodying the role again.

With just the words in Tolkien's book and nothing else, the legend made that world come alive again without any VFX or his big wizardry hat, although (spoiler alert) it does make an appearance in the show. He went on to tell stories about Peter Jackson and the late Christopher Lee, who always thought he'd make a wonderful Gandalf. All of these stories are golden, as are the rest of the tales the actor shares from his personal and professional life. These stories range from tragedy to hilarity and insights that combine the two in a powerful manner.

If The Good Liar star was a classic rock band, then this was a concert in which he played the big hits while still making them fresh and new. "It's like Jazz," McKellen says at one point, talking about how he approaches Shakespeare. He wants it different every time, so no matter how many times he's performed in stage productions of Hamlet or Macbeth, when he reads passages from them and acts the hell out of them, it feels like you're watching him do it for the very first time, because it is him doing this exact version for the very first time. Of course, that's what makes theater great. Like the star of the show told the crowd, it's all about the now, and he's nowhere else but the present. Magically, he brings a crowd of hundreds right into the moment with him.

As someone who admittedly can find Shakespeare impenetrable – I ain't no genius – his words came alive in a way I had never experienced before watching McKellen perform them. If ever an actor was born to read those lines, it's him. Even the most basic English language he makes sound pleasurable. Such mundane words as "banana" and "cucumber," become glorious with McKellen's delivery. How many people can claim that accomplishment? It's very amusing how much panache he brings to the plainest of words.

He's a great showman in-person. When he's not reading Shakespeare or relating tales somber or joyous from his life, he's cracking jokes and lighting up the room. If McKellen ever wanted to do stand up comedy, he'd probably dominate that art form too. He's so quick, at ease around a huge crowd, and his timing is flawless. He knows exactly when to let loose for levity and when to transition to a more emotional story. The one-man show ebbs and flows with such ease because of McKellen's storytelling prowess.

"80 is a timely age to look back – and forward, a little," McKellen said. The actor spends a lot of time looking back during his performance, providing a big picture of his life from childhood, early aspirations towards hotel management, acting school, and even his cherished friendship with Sir Patrick Stewart. He recounts these decades-old stories about family, friends, or performances like they just occurred yesterday. The audience gets to know McKellen so well they even learn the age he had his very first erection, which very appropriately and prophetically took place in the theater, a place where he has seemed to have found the greatest joy. He doesn't like to spare the most serious details. The man who once made bending metal look cool on screen talks about these personal stories and people in his life with as much passion than Shakespeare, which is saying a lot. He would beam with positivity when remembering people from his past. At times, it was moving to watch him express the love for the most important people in his life to an entire crowd.

There's such a fearlessness to McKellen on stage. No joke is too broad, no feeling is too personal. He opens up in a way about himself most people reserve for their closest of friends, but McKellen wants to share parts of his 80 years of life with anyone in the crowd. Even though it's a performance he's repeated many times, he makes the audience feel close to him during the show like he's opening up to just them and only them, for the first and last time.

He's been doing it for over 60 years on stage, and it shows. Ian McKellen On Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others...and You! is a showcase for a master at work. During the show, the actor admitted a few performances he wished he saw live when he had the chance. Those missed opportunities tend to sting. Anyone who ever has the chance to see McKellen perform live, don't miss that chance. It'll be a regret that will linger, knowing to have missed out on 150 minutes of such unique honesty and theatrical greatness.

One of the reasons why I wanted to see Ian McKellen perform was because I was once heard John C. Reilly say, of all the performances he had ever seen, McKellen on stage was one of the best. It was a mind-blowing and game-changing moment for him, like it probably is for a lot of actors or everyday theatergoers. When it comes to his one-man show, his presence is both larger-than-life and deeply human, an unparalleled actor with a long list of skills honed for 60 years. With all McKellen's experiences, he puts on a more epic show with greater intensity and emotional rushes than Metallica running through their hardcore hits, surrounded by pyrotechnics.


"Ian McKellen On Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others...and YOU!" continues its run at The Harold Pinter theater until January 5, 2020.