Boxing Shakespeare

The Bard has endured his share of televisual disasters. But none involving Ian McKellen. David Benedict spends a weekend at the NFT
one of ian mckellen's finest performances was as Iago in Trevor Nunn's thriller-like production of Othello at the tiny Other Place theatre at Stratford in 1989. This was Shakespeare in close-up with an entire audience held breathless as McKellen's obsessive Iago stealthily ensnared an unsuspecting Othello and Zo Wanamaker turned the forgotten role of Emilia into a spellbinding portrait of divided loyalties. It was entirely natural that it should be transferred to TV. Anyone who missed it should hurtle down to the National Film Theatre to catch it on 23 April during the climax to Walking Shadows, the Shakespeare on film season.

Shakespeare on TV often ends up being the worst of all possible worlds, but the indefatigable archivists at the NFT have come up with some fascinating material for this long weekend with Ian McKellen.

In 1968, the 29-year-old actor went to the Prospect Theatre company playing the title roles in Richard II and Marlowe's Edward II. It was the coupling of these two roles which established him as the leading classical actor of his generation. Happily, both productions were filmed for BBC2. This is the first time in years that anyone has had the chance to see them.

The season also offers the opportunity to compare his 1972 Hamlet, "a 17th-century loner on a mental LSD trip which sharpens his brains and determination", with the recent spate of student Danes from Alan Rickman (languid), Alan Cumming (stand-up manic depressive), Damien Lewis (precocious), Stephen Dillane (tortured), Kenneth Branagh (bullish), Ralph Fiennes (romantic). This Hamlet was reconceived for the small screen, rather than the earlier awkward filmed stagings.

By 1979 and the Trevor Nunn Macbeth, TV production styles had moved on apace. As with Othello this too had an intense intimacy. The playing space was a square within a circle, outlined in black, painted on the floor. The actors sat around the edge watching and waiting, creating a sense of heightened concentration and claustrophobia. The TV production was widely regarded as something of a coup, with the fluidity required by television while drawing the viewer into a sense of live theatre.

Even the man himself has not seen the early work for years. He is jittery at the prospect of seeing performances from so long ago. More importantly he is unhappy at the idea of trying to shoehorn stage productions on to the screen without proper attention to the new medium. He should know. He has spent three years developing a screen version of Richard III originally performed at the National. Nothing is certain in the film business, but he is on the brink of signing the deal with the Hollywood producers. He can, at least, take heart in that the film will be made from a properly cinematic screenplay. After all, he wrote it.

The Ian McKellen season opens at the NFT on 20 Apr. He is interviewed by Michael Billington on 23 Apr. Full details: 0171-928 3232