Tag Archives: Ian McKellan

Always the bridesmaid?

Went last week  to see Pinter’s No Man’s Land at London’s Aldwych Theatre, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

Patrick Stewart had lost his voice and so his understudy took over.

At the end of the play. Ian McKellan came forward and praised the performance of the understudy. And quite rightly as it was excellent.

Two points: as the cast were taking their curtain calls ( there were three) McKellan kept the understudy’s hand  in his – a brotherly gesture or an attempt to prevent the understudy from stepping forward to take a well-earned applause of his own? Still, that’s the theatre for you.

And the second point? McKellan got the understudy’s name wrong so here it is:  Andrew Jarvis.

If you’re interested in the plight of the understudy – always the bridesmaid never the bride – have a look at David Weston’s excellent book Covering McKellan. He spent a year as understudy to Ian McKellan when the latter was touring Lear.

Poignant but a story that has to be told. All part of the theatre canon.

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My Christmas Reading

Last year, my Christmas reading was an early birthday present of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens. Each winter’s evening, in the run up to Dec 25th, I couldn’t wait to light the fire, draw up a chair, pour a glass of wine and get reading. A marvellous book.

This year, it’s a bit different: a rereading of Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time which looks at the complexities and mysteries surrounding Richard lll: his women, the princes in the tower, his relationship with his mother – all told as a detective story. In tandem, I’ll have to hand the Oxford World Classic annotated edition of the play itself – plus my own memories of the many productions I’ve seen including those of Ian Mckellan, Derek Jacobi, Kathryn Hunter, Mark Rylance, Kevin Spacey, Peter Dinklage, Fayez Kazak,Barrie Rutter,Richard Clothier – and many others!
I’ll also be rereading The Calligrapher’s Night – a gift from an earlier Christmas – which is an evocative novel about a present-day Istanbul-based calligrapher and is written by Yasmine Ghata, a French/Lebanese writer. The image below – a projection of the prayer Bismillah –  is from the excellent exhibition of Arab art and culture at the Louvre.

Nov 2012 etc 033

This will stand me in good staid when planning the presentation (on Syria) I am giving in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library, on February 2nd and which will touch on examples of calligraphy at the Library – among other aspects of Syrian culture.

For poetry, I will have Donegal poet Francis Harvey’s Collected Poems, published by Daedalus. My favourite is the one about the heron which, the poet has told me, is one he is almost sick of reading because it is so often requested by his fans. Well, I’m a fan and I can’t read it often enough.

And, yet another present (how well people know what I like to read!) is Ian Cobain’s Cruel Britannia A Secret History of Torture which includes analysis, narrative and exposure and is especially of interest since Shannon Airport was used by the US and the UK and their allies to render to Guantanamo people suspected of terrorist acts.
For other ( light?) reading, I intend going to a bookshop today and choosing a book of short stories. Watch this space….

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Always the bridesmaid: an actor on what it’s like to be an understudy



“Covering McKellen An Understudy’s Tale” by David Weston.




I was given this book because I like Ian McKellen. If you’ve seen his Richard lll (on stage or on the screen) you’ll understand why and if you’ve never seen his Widow Twanky, you’ve never lived.

This book, however, is about David Weston and the year he spent understudying McKellen’s Lear. It’s full of actor’s anecdotes, of how the cast got on with each other, of the squabbles backstage, the awful lodgings, the boredom of waiting around in airports, the lonliness of being away from home. And if you’re a few minutes late arriving at the theatre, you get booked. Never happened in the old days.  There are health and safety forms to be filled in: can you kneel/can you push and pull/do you have difficulty standing for a long time? And don’t even mention the “gift” the cast received from the RSC at the end of the run.

Above all, it’s about the thoughts of an ageing actor (Weston is in his early seventies) who, having played all the parts, is now ending his career relegated to the role of understudy though to an actor he admires and to whom he is touchingly loyal for, in the whole year of the tour, McKellen doesn’t have as much as one night off. Not a sore throat, not a stubbed toe, nothing.

There is one heart-stopping moment when word comes through that Sir Ian has failed to turn up at the theatre. And in Hollywood!

Weston takes up the script and starts to look at the first scene. It’s seared into his brain, he says. He’s advised to stay calm, that they’re trying to locate McKellen and, hell’s bells, they do: he’d overslept and couldn’t get a taxi. But he’s on the way.

I dropped this book in the bath – hence it’s decrepit state – but I kept on reading it throughout the year. I had to: McKellen’s Shakespearean voice resonates and his willie’s not bad either – for a 68-year-old, as noted by the New Zealand Herald.

His understudy is grateful for any crumbs that might come his way and some do. Like the critic who wrote: “One of the great pleasures of an RSC production is the attention that is lavished on the minor parts.”

Weston does get a chance to play Lear when, back in London, they have an understudy run through.  He lets his friends know, his agent, anyone that might be interested in seeing him do Lear. And you know what – it’s cancelled and he has to phone everyone to tell them not to bother coming.

A few weeks later, he gets a second chance when they finally have the understudy’s run through. This time, he plays Lear to an invited audience which includes his two daughters and afterwards Ian McKellen hugs him and says he almost envies his having two such lovely daughters. It’s that almost that gets to you.

Weston has understudied all of them: David Warner,Alan Bates, Derek Jacobi and his insider’s take on the RSC is marvellous. For anyone in love with the theatre, this is their book but if you ever think life is passing you by, imagine what it must be like to be understudy to Ian McKellen. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

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